Time flies!


As the end of summer fast approaches, it’s a nice time to take stock of just how quickly this year has gone and what I’ve done in academic year 2013/14. Right now, I’ve been back in the UK for more than a year, I’ve been engaged for eight months, it’s been more than four months since my knee surgery, it’s been about six weeks from us moving into our first house, and it’s been about two weeks since I started my latest health kick and trying to get back to BMF.

And despite the fact that this year has been full of lots of stuff, I’ve managed to carve out some time for writing, which has included a big step towards finishing the Mock the Week paper I’ve been working on with a colleague for about the past three years (!) and my chapter for the impact volume is nearing the stage where I can send it out for review. I’ve also done a few conferences, a couple of reviews and some other bits and pieces, so all in all, 2013/14 has been relatively productive, with a variety of highs and lows.

But probably one of the academic highlights of this past 12 months has to be the Sociolinguistics Summer School, held for the first time outside of the UK in the sunny environs of UCD in Dublin. The Sociolinguistics Summer School has been running since 2009 and was first held at the University of Edinburgh. Since then, it’s been held in 2010 (Edinburgh), 2011 (Glasgow), 2012 (Newcastle) and 2014 (Dublin). I was lucky enough to go along to the one in either 2009 or 2010 (I forget which…), the one in Glasgow in 2011 and then the most recent one in Dublin, and it’s wonderful to see it grow from strength to strength. What was really crazy for me was attending in 2009/10 as a recently-completed PhD student and then being invited in 2014 as one of the plenary speakers (my first major plenary session as well). If someone had said in 2009/10 that I’d be back giving a plenary talk, I’d have thought you mental, but it happened! Alongside Daniel Ezra Johnson, Helen Kelly-Holmes and Diarmait Mac Giolla Chriost, I was certainly in esteemed company, although it’s debatable how much I felt I belonged there!

For those of you who haven’t been to a Summer School, it generally follows the pattern of a plenary talk in the morning, followed by a two-hour workshop for students (led by the plenary speaker), then lunch, then student presentations. Oh, and then the pub. I ran out of time a bit during my presentation and had to rush through the last 10/15 minutes, and it certainly made me realise I have to think through some of the issues a bit more before I commit them to paper, and my workshop session seemed to get people talking, so generally speaking, I think I can count the whole day as a success.

But what’s really great about the Summer School is that it’s a wonderful venue for postgraduate students to meet and discuss their work in a relatively low-pressure and supportive environment. There’s less worry about being asked that really horrible question from a member of the audience and people seem to be more open to discussing the trials and tribulations of the research process and working on research problem. It was also good to see the depth and breadth of work postgraduate students are undertaking, from the increase of Irish language provision in Northern Ireland to the coverage of the horse meat scandal of last year. I’m always impressed by the confidence and poise demonstrated by postgraduate researchers (qualities I most certainly didn’t possess as a postgrad!), and the presentations I saw this year were no exception.

I also have to say a brief word about the organising team, who I thought did a brilliant job in putting together such a great event. Having organised the Birmingham Cityscapes symposium a few years back, I know how difficult it is to head up an academic event; it really is like herding cats. But Jennifer, Chloe, John and Hema put so much time and effort into making the event a success, and even though I told them this countless times during the week (probably at my most ebullient following a couple pints of Guinness…), it’s worthwhile repeating!

- The Social Linguist

P.S. The last I knew, no-one had volunteered to organise Summer School 6, so if you’re keen on hosting the event at your institution, get in touch with the committee from UCD and they’ll point you in the right direction of how to go about it.

Corby: The most Scottish town in England?


The BBC just published an interesting article on Corby, a town in England located near Kettering and Northampton (so East Midlands). Corby is a really interesting wee town because a whole bunch of Glaswegian and Central Belt steel workers moved there from the 1930 onwards when the Glasgow based company Stewarts & Lloyds built a huge steelworks in the town. Naturally, when a population moves to a new location, especially in some sort of critical mass, they take their cultural practices with them. Corby is now one of the few places in England where you can buy Irn Bru, square sausage and haggis with pretty much no problems at all. The town has its own pipe band, several Highland dancing clubs, a Rangers football supporters club (at least up until 2013), an annual Highland games and other notably Scottish activities and organisations. But one thing that sets Corby apart from other locations in the East Midlands is its associated accent (here’s a nice British Library clip of people discussing the Corby accent):

The most striking is the Corby accent, or mixture of accents. Some sound Glaswegian. Others seem to have a slight Scottish twang. And there are those that speak with a broad Scottish accent (BBC article).

When the Clyde Valley workers moved to Corby, they brought with them their accent, an accent which 2nd and 3rd generation family members also adopted (or at least certain features of it). The BBC article even goes so far as to suggest that people in Corby still feel Scottish, despite the fact that many of them are born and bred in England:

However, when it came to how the population described its national identity, 5,585 people in Corby said “Scottish only”. By comparison, 33,018 people described themselves as “English only” and 10,299 people said they were “British only”.

But the census doesn’t necessarily tally with local perceptions.

Steve Ireland, 64, who used to work in a whisky factory and the RAF in Scotland, but is English and now lives in Corby, maintains the town is very much still a “mini-Scotland.

Steve Noble, whose parents moved down from Glasgow in 1970 to work on the steelworks when he was 10 and is the landlord of the White Hart pub, agrees many families in Corby still feel Scottish.”

Now, the point of today’s blog isn’t to get into an argument about what does or doesn’t constitute Scottishness, but rather to suggest that this reading of families in Corby is really quite different to sociolinguistic work which looks at these issues. Of particular note is the work of Judy Dyer who conducted a really nice piece of sociolinguistic research on Corby back in the early 2000s (‘We all speak the same around here: Dialect levelling in a Scottish-English community‘).

Examining the LOT/THOUGHT merger and the GOAT vowel, Dyer shows that LOT/THOUGHT patterns much like other Anglo-English varieties (that is, two vowel phonemes here instead of just one as most Scots varieties do), but GOAT seems to be slightly different, with men favouring the monophthongal variant (that is, a variant similar to the Scots variant) while women favour the Anglo-English variant which is more diphthongal. Dyer asks why ‘historically Scottish features have been adopted at all, given the stigma associated with them (Dyer 2002: 109), and points out that a traditional variationist account would suggest that the male speakers in Corby are indexing some sort of Scottishness through their use of the monophthongal GOAT, and this is a reading which certainly fits in with the narrative outlined in the BBC article. But what’s especially interesting is that;

the third generation men interviewed, even those producing the highest percentages of historically Scottish variants, did not identify themselves as Scottish in any way. This is manifest both anecdotally in their support for the English (rather than Scottish) team in the Football World Cup (1998), and in their own self identifications. RD, one of the third generation male speakers with the highest use of historically Scottish variants, describes celebrating New Year with Scottish friends as an entirely new cultural experience, and ClT, another third generation man refers to the Cockney slang for Scots (‘sweaty socks’) and jokingly calls the Scots ‘sweaty jocks,’ clearly constructing them as ‘the other’ in his discourse (Dyer 2002: 110). 

Dyer goes into a good amount of detail concerning the kinds of social discourses surrounds Scots and Scotland, using data from 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation families in Corby and comes to the conclusion that it’s not Scotland the speakers indexing through their use of monopthongal GOAT, but rather it’s simply to display an orientation towards local identity. This perhaps isn’t surprising, and similar findings are reported in Scotland for young people’s use of TH-fronting in Glasgow (i.e. it’s not that they’re trying to identify as English or Londoner, but rather orientation towards and constructing a specific local identity).

It’s unlikely that the BBC would reach this kind of depth in their analysis, especially since the Scottish accent in Corby can be fitted into such a neat nationalistic narrative (alliteration ftw), but it does raise the point that how linguists and how journalists approach complex language situations can be really quite different.

- The Social Linguist

Proposal to add Dizzee and Brand to new A-Level English Lit and Lang


Today, the OCR exam board announced some changes to the English Language and Literature A-level qualification, changes which have caused a bit of stir in media-land, including the Telegraph and the Guardian (nb. the articles themselves are relatively balanced, but it’s in the comments that things get feisty). The main change is to include a wider variety of texts in the curriculum; so texts by writers such as Blake, Dickinson, Orwell and Shakspeare will be studied alongside texts by writers and performers like Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal, and Allie Brosh.

Of course, it’s important to say that these are simply proposals at the moment and they haven’t been agreed upon, so there might be further changes down the line. Nonetheless, these proposed changes have ignited a debate about the ‘value’ of Russell Brand’s testimony at a recent Commons home affairs select committee on drug addiction, Dizzee Rascal’s appearance on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, and Allie Brosh’s imaginative rendering of her life escapades in her blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Some people ‘on the inside’ (that is, working in the Department for Education) have criticised the proposals, arguing that “This is exactly the kind of dumbing down we are trying to get rid of. They must be having a laugh if they think A-levels in Dizzee Rascal and Russell Brand are going to be let through”. Others, however, have praised these changes to the curriculum, pointing out that “The new A-level will introduce new approaches and scope for more creative writing, while offering teachers and students the flexibility to explore an extremely broad variety of styles, methodologies and genres”.

I think that it’s worthwhile exploring in more depth some of these positions, primarily because they represent two ideologically diametric stances, but for the moment, I just want to focus on what I think these changes actually entail.

The first thing to say is that the qualification is a qualification in English Language and Literature. That means that students primarily develop skills in English language and linguistics, and then apply these skills to a range of texts. Now, some of these texts will be the canonical classics like Shakespeare and so on, and students will likely examine English in its historical context, the impact writers like Shakespeare had on English, the Inkhorn Controversy, changes over time in English and so on. They might examine these texts from a literary perspective in terms of characterisation, meaning, thematic analysis etc etc, but that starts to move away from the purview of a linguistic analysis. This is all great and good and I am totally on board with students reading and analysing these texts. Not only are they important points in the development of English but they are wonderful examples of literature and as such should be included in a course like this.

But since the qualification has at its heart English Language studies, it makes perfect sense that students examine contemporary texts as well, not as examples of classic literature, but rather as examples of language in action. As linguists, we don’t make appraisals about how good or bad a particular text is. Instead, we try to bring out the kinds of linguistic strategies and techniques that a writer (or speaker) utilises in the production of said text and to position this description within a broader social context. So looking at the Dizzee Rascal clip above, a linguist might examine not only his phonology and grammar and discuss this in relation to standard and non-standard linguistic markets, but also examine how persuasive his arguments are, what kind rhetorical strategies he uses, what his text tells us about language and race in the UK, how power relationship between Paxman and Rascal are encoded, how interruption and overlap are patterned throughout the interaction, and so on. These are all really important issues to examine and go beyond the ideology that because Dizzee Rascal is a hip-hop artist, we should just ignore any text in which he features.

Ultimately, giving students the skills to be able to analyse any text, regardless of its provenance, is a really important skill, and focusing purely on classic texts ignores the complexity of language that happens in every day situations. The OCR acknowledges this in their press release on the proposals: “The aim is for students to develop the skills to analyse any text, whether spoken or written, literary or non-literary, in the most appropriate way.

Analysing Rascal or Brand or Perry or Brosh or any other contemporary writer doesn’t meant the end of the UK as we know it. It doesn’t signal the death knell of a literary education. It doesn’t even represent a ‘dumbing down’ of students’ abilities or of the course material. If anything, focusing wholly on Orwell or Shakespeare or Blake or Wordsworth at the expense of other kinds of texts would simply hamstring students’ abilities to be able to transfer their skills to a variety of texts, would prevent them being able to understand the historical progression of English over time, and would make them think that the language that they listen to every day isn’t worth analysing. And it would be shameful if that happened.

- The Social Linguist

How do you use social media in your research?

April 29, 2014 2 comments

/shiftsaboutnervously

So…. This blog thing… Um… Wow, has it really been four months since I last updated? Eek. That’s eh… that’s not so good. Wow.

I know I keep on saying that I should get back on the wagon with the blog, and I have had a few bits and pieces I’ve wanted to write about, but it’s been hard finding time, especially during the semester. Beyond teaching (oh, and a recent promotion!), there’s also been lots of upheaval outside of university (getting engaged, buying a house, having knee surgery etc etc), all of which has been a bit of a major distraction from regular updates.

In any event, I do actually have something I wanted to write about today and I figured that while I’m laid up at home recovering from my op (nothing serious; a torn meniscus and chrodroplasty, taken care of in day surgery), I could use the time productively in my research. Hurrah!

I think I’ve said before on the blog that I’m currently working on a volume (with Dave Sayers, Sheffield Hallam University) about the application of sociolinguistic research outside of academia. We think it’s a pretty big area of research that’s not really been talked about too much over the years, and with the importance of ‘impact’ ever rising within funding councils, we’re looking to show how sociolinguistics can be leveraged and applied beyond the immediate university context.

My chapter focuses on the use of social and traditional media in the reporting of sociolinguistic research and the advantages and disadvantaged each method has. But I’m also interested in finding out about how sociolinguists have used social media in their research. So if you’re a (ir)regular user of Facebook, Twitter, forums, personal research blogs, research blogs you’ve made for a funder, or any other form of social media, I’m hoping you might be able to take the time to answer a few questions:

  1. What forms of social media do you use in your research (Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc)?
  2. How useful has social media been to you?
  3. What have been the primary functions you’ve used social media for (research findings, general language discussion etc)?
  4. How have funders responded to your use of social media?
  5. How effective has social media been in facilitating knowledge dissemination?
  6. How effective has social media been in developing stakeholder/end user/general public engagement?
  7. Anything else you’d like to add about social media?

Ideally, I’d like to examine in my chapter not only the pros and cons of traditional/social media, but also how it’s actually been used by sociolinguists, as a kind of ‘how to’. Feel free to put your comments down below, or alternatively, fire off an email to robert.lawson AT bcu.ac.uk

- The Social Linguist

DUM DUM DUM!!!!! IT’S HERE!!!!

January 28, 2014 2 comments

A *long* time ago, I touted the idea of a new edited volume about new sociolinguistic research in Scotland. It was partly an idea in response to the fact that it was back in 2003 (over ten years ago now) that the last edited volume about language use in Scotland had been published, and in the interim, there had been an awful lot of work that had been published about language in this (that?) part of the world.

After some mucking around with EUP, I submitted the proposal to Palgrave Macmillan and they liked it so much they gave me a contract. So with a contract, a set of contributors and a bunch of ideas in mind, everything all of a sudden seemed to be going quite smoothly after a fairly rocky start. During my year in Pittsburgh, I was able to spend a good amount of time focused on getting the volume finished, and along with help from a bunch of reviewers and my girlfriend Rebecca (who proof read every single chapter for me. Twice.), I was able to get the book finished and sent into Palgrave around April last year. After that, there was a flurry of correcting proofs (bizarrely, the copy editor changed all the semi-colons to commas, some of which had to be semi-colons in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct…), doing the marketing material, checking final versions of the chapters, checking the index was correct, and all sorts of miscellaneous bits and pieces you overlook when thinking about what’s involved in getting an edited volume finished, I received an email saying that everything was all done and dusted and that the final version would be at my house within the next two days.

And lo and behold, the final product is here!

ImageFifteen glorious chapters! 336 pages of awesomeness! A whole 5.5×8.75×1 (inches) of knowledge ready to be dropped! Pictures! Maps! Graphs! Words! Commas! It’s all here and it’s all fantastic.

It’s now available to buy via Amazon (hardback – £55) or Palgrave (hardback – £70), and hopefully if it does well enough, it’ll come out in paperback and come down to a bit more of an affordable price.

But because I have a bunch of author copies that I don’t need, I’ll be giving away a copy to three random people who either ‘like’ or ‘share’ this post on facebook, twitter or wordpress. Free books are always a good thing!

Obviously, a project like this isn’t just the culmination of one person’s efforts, so I’d like to take the opportunity to publicly thank all the contributors who wrote a chapter, all the reviewers who gave helpful feedback on the chapters, Palgrave (and especially Olivia Middleton, Nicola Lennon and Philip Tye) for giving me the opportunity to publish this project, all the people in Pittsburgh who were supportive as the book was coming close to completion, and particularly my girlfriend Rebecca, who was unwavering in her support and love through all the tribulations writing and editing brings.

- The Social Linguist

P.S. Thanks again to Rebecca for proof-reading my blog post and finding at least two mistakes on her first read through…

Categories: Uncategorized

Some research stuff!


Ok, so I know it’s been ages since I last posted, something which is particularly embarrassing given the fact that my last post mentioned that I would be updating more regularly. And that hasn’t happened. Ugh. Part of the reason for this is because I’ve been settling back into my life in Birmingham after my Fulbright life in Pittsburgh came to an end, and to be totally honest, I’m still kind of finding my feet. It’s amazing how despite living in a city for years, even a short time away can make everything seem so new again. I mean, I spent nearly 10 years in Glasgow and now when I visit there, I hardly recognise the place, and the same happened a wee bit with coming back to Brum.

But after a few months back, things are slowly coming together. I’m back teaching, I’m back sitting in meetings, I’m back driving back and forth to work, and I’m gradually getting to grips with this UK life, but I think it’ll take another few months before I can honestly say things are back to the way they were before I left. What’s a bit worrisome is that I still find myself pining for Pittsburgh, about the places and people I met there, and while I had that a bit with Tucson, it’s more pronounced this time. I’m sure it will pass, but being melancholy about it certainly won’t help!

In other news, there’s been quite a lot happening in the world of sociolinguistics recently. For example, we had Lindsay Johns banging on about the power of the spoken word and how we should all be speaking Standard English. We had the banning of slang words in a high school in south London. There was the story about declining literacy rates in the UK and the slump in foreign language learning at university level. Oh, and there was also the story that ‘huh’ might be a linguistic universal. All of this, and more, continues to show how language is still very much front and centre on the national and international stage, although bizarrely, there’s not much in the way of input of actual linguists… That’s probably a story for another post, particularly as it relates to my own research on social media and the reporting of sociolinguistic research (I gave a talk about this at the recent Language in the Media conference in London).

Lastly, I’m happy to announce that I’ve had a flurry of things getting published recently, including an article on TH-fronting in Glasgow, which will be in English World-Wide and my own chapter on what ethnography can tell us about sociolinguistic variation over time, which will be in my edited volume Sociolinguistics in Scotland (and you can now buy it on Amazon!). Both of these pieces of work have been a wee while in the making, so as you can imagine, I’m pretty chuffed to have them done and dusted (especially the edited volume!). /blatentselfpromotion (!)

So yeah, I’ll try try try to start updating this more regularly, especially because it is quite good fun and it’s something a bit different from the usual academic-y kind of writing that I have to do. If only I could use some of my blog posts as REF outputs…

- The Social Linguist

RIP Iain Banks


A few weeks ago, Iain (Menzies) Banks passed away at the age of 59 after succumbing to gall bladder cancer, having only been diagnosed with it in March of this year. A man of tremendous intelligence and wit, Banks’ ‘mainstream’ fiction writing was an insightful combination of social commentary and dark humour, from the weird and wonderful The Wasp Factory to the grizzly and disturbing Complicity, while his ‘sci-fi’ fiction (written under the moniker ‘Iain M Banks’) ran the gamut from inter-stellar espionage in Consider Phlebas to mind-uploading and virtual hells in Surface Detail.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Banks and his work meant to me, but I’ll try. I came across Banks’ writing fairly late on. His first book, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984 (I was two at the time), so I never read anything until I was in my late-teens. In quick succession, I read Canal Dreams, The Wasp Factory and Espedair Street, all borrowed from a friend of mine. I thought they were funny, interesting and quirky books, but it wasn’t until I was at university when I was ‘forced’ to read The Bridge for my undergraduate class in Scottish Literature. And that was the book that changed it all for me. It’s one of those books that you get a little bit more out of it every time you read it, and it’s probably my favourite of all of Banks’ books.

Written in three ‘arcs’, The Bridge follows 1) an unnamed protagonist who wakes up on a mysterious bridge, 2) an love-struck engineer and 3) a Barbarian who speaks in a broad Glaswegian accent. So as not to waste your experience of reading this book for the first time, I won’t say much more about the plot, but suffice to say, as soon as I finished it, I went straight back to the start and went through it again. It was The Bridge that opened up the canon of Scottish Literature to me as an impressionable undergraduate, and Banks acquired another fan for life. And over the years, I developed a wee routine where I would buy a Banks book every time I flew abroad, and up there in the confines of my cattle-class seat, I would have hours to sit undisturbed, engrossed in the worlds Banks built. Banks’ books will always be linked to the various trips I’ve taken, with the people I met, and the places I visited. They set the scene for a new set of experiences, a primer that I was heading off to explore something different.

I avoided his sci-fi fiction for the longest time, but eventually, I ran out of his mainstream fiction and my hand was forced. So at the airport in Glasgow on the way to Pittsburgh last year, I bought Consider Phlebas. And from then on, I have chewed my way through almost every single Iain M Banks I could get my hands on, too impatient to wait until my next far-flung plane journey.

I had the pleasure of meeting him (and shaking his hand!) a couple of years ago at the Glasgow Aye Write festival, where he signed a few of his books I brought along. I also asked a question during the Q&A session, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was… Maybe something about why games were so important in his work? All I remember is being in awe of the man who had filled my days and nights with unimaginable worlds and whose work had variously made me feel thrilled, annoyed, sick, happy, sad, angry, curious, inspired, and confused.

Of course, I am desperately sad that he has gone, but my main feeling is one of thankfulness. Thankful that someone had his gift, thankful that he decided to write, thankful that he wrote such wonderful books, and thankful that his work moved me so much that not a day goes by where I don’t think of at least something written by him. The world is a far better place for having had Banks on it, and I doubt we will see someone of his ilk again.

So here’s to Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry. You are missed.

- The Social Linguist

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