And it’s only February! I know that I usually start these posts with ‘I can’t believe it’s been so long since I last posted’, but genuinely, I can’t believe I last posted in October last year! Part of this is still to do with the fact that I’m struggling to find a balance between teaching, admin, research and finding time to blog.
And it’s not like there’s not been interesting stuff to discuss, from the article on New York English, to a new blog I found (Lexical Valley), stuff on pronoun usage on Google, gender neutrality in children’s books, linguistic discrimination in the trial about Trayvon Martin’s shooting, Danny Dyer and Game of Thrones and loads more besides. So there’s been loads of stuff going on that would have been interesting to have spent a bit more time on, so over the next few months I hope to go back to some of these stories and have a bit of a think about what they tell us about language.
But alas, my focus has been primarily on course directing, marking, doing my external examiner duties, wedding planning (!), a bit of writing and assorted other work-related responsibilities. One of the things that is coming to an end (ok, in the next 10 months) is the impact volume that I’m working on with Dave Sayers (Sheffield Hallam). We even have our own entry in the Routledge catalogue, so it’s all systems go as far as that’s concerned. All the chapters are in (I finished my chapter last Sunday), the introduction is still to be finished, and then it’s just the wee bits and pieces of indexing etc that’ll be left to do around about June or so. I’m really looking forward to this coming out, and it’ll be the end of a long process going back to 2012. These projects take far too long to do, and that’s one of the things that I talk about in my chapter!
Anyway, I had a quick 30 minutes tonight to get this post done. Apologies it’s not exactly high on quality content, but I kind of guilt tripped myself into writing something down!
– The Social Linguist
Yesterday I started my 3rd year language and gender module. It’s a module I enjoy teaching, but this year I’m adding to my workload and making (being forced to make?) big changes to the content and structure of the module, mainly because of the recent Moodle roll-over which broke almost all of my content from last year… It also dawned on me that I hadn’t really changed much of the content since inheriting the module nearly five years ago, and since I really didn’t want to teach another class on Helene Cixous and Donna Haraway, I had to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in with new lecture notes and seminar activities….
Beyond the changes I’m implementing to my teaching material, one of the big things that I’m trialling this year is using Twitter so that my students can hashtag (yes, it’s a verb now) interesting L&G material and share it with one another. This was inspired by a teaching talk I went to over the summer by Gary Wood, who teaches a module on syntax at Sheffield Uni. One of the things Gary does with his class is to set up a twitter account where students can ask questions, share materials, discuss ideas and so on, and by adopting this particular strategy, he has seen the pass rate for syntax climb up into the 90%, not to say anything about increasing student engagement.
Being a big user of twitter (and social media more generally) in my research and ‘outreach’ activities, it was a surprise to me that I hadn’t thought of using twitter in my teaching. I suppose part of it was the worry of it being too gimmicky and that my students wouldn’t take it up. But seeing I use it at conferences, for public communication and so on, it seems a bit daft to think that it wouldn’t be good enough for my students. So yesterday I set up a hashtag, started tweeting about a few things and had a couple of students follow me on my twitter handle. It’s far too early to tell whether there’s an impact on student enjoyment/engagement, and that will come out at the end of the module, but it’s an interesting experiment.
I also tentatively brought up the idea that students can tweet during classes… I’m not sure if that was a great idea, but the cat’s out the bag now….
– The Social Linguist
As the new series of the Birmingham-based drama Peaky Blinders quickly approaches, there’s been a lot of talk in the media about Birmingham English. Historically, this variety has been quite hard done by, variously accused of being slow, dim-witted, and intellectually lacking. Given that Birmingham English is an urban variety, such attitudes are not especially surprising, and much of the perception studies out there have confirmed that B.E. is a very poorly received variety, so much so that the BBC Voices project rated the Birmingham English dead last for social attractiveness (out of 34 varieties!).
So you can imagine my surprise this morning when I read a BBC article about B.E. which said:
As Cillian Murphy dropped his soft Irish lilt for Tommy Shelby’s understated Brummie, he demonstrated that the accent could be serious, subtle and spoken by sharp-minded people.
I’m not suggesting that this quote represents a whole-sale shift in attitudes towards B.E., but if you subscribe to the notion that the media impacts and shapes our attitudes, then it’s hard to see it as anything but a small step in the right direction.
– The Social Linguist
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.
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
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