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Archive for July, 2011

On writing (or ‘on not writing’)


Yesterday, I had an unfortunate episode of writer’s block, probably the first time since I submitted my PhD that I’ve properly struck by it. This was particularly frustrating because I’ve felt in quite good form recently with my writing in that I’ve managed to put in a couple of funding applications, a conference abstract, a book proposal, a chapter abstract and all of my blogs posts (all… six of ’em) over the past six months or so. So yeah, things were going quite well and then Friday came along and… nothing… My mind was just completely frozen up and every time I looked at the screen I just couldn’t find the words. At all. Maybe it’s a bit of a mental hangover from finishing my competitive co-operation paper I submitted on Sunday (in which I used the very attractive term ‘co-opetition’. It just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?), or maybe it’s just changing gear to something completely different. Whatever it is, I hope it runs its course sometime soon and let me get back on it, especially since I just recently found out that I won’t be returned as an Early Career Researcher for REF2014, meaning that instead of submitting two ‘pieces of assessment’, I now need to submit four. Not a big deal and I would have had the four by the end of 2013 anyway, but now that it’s ‘mandated’ by my department, I feel a little bit of pressure on to get it done.

So this current article I’m working on is about orientations towards violence among working-class adolescent males and the most I was able to do was take a conference paper I’d done on it from about 10 months ago and reorganise it into something resembling an article (if only in terms of section headings rather than actual content). I had originally planned to submit it to the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, a very highly respected publication edited by a colleague of mine at Birmingham City University (Professor David Wilson), but since the majority of their publications are focused on the penal industry (stop snickering), I didn’t think that my article was a particularly good fit. So, I’ve decided to submit it instead to the British Journal of Criminology where it seems to fit a bit better. I did get massively excited when I stumbled upon this research centre at the University of Glasgow and was particularly taken by the following quote:

“The tradition of the hard man has tremendous currency in contemporary Scottish popular commentary and in literature but there has been little serious discussion of his antecedents or of the constituents of manliness that have seemingly prevailed in Scottish society.”

In my article, this is more or less what I’m investigating: what is it to be a ‘man’ in contemporary Glasgow today, what role does violence play in the construction of ‘tough’ masculinity in the city, and how far do adolescent males resist, contest and challenge dominant ideologies of ‘tough’ masculinity? I’m especially interested in the impact of violence on adolescent male constructions of masculinity because the image of the ‘hard man’ is such a dominant cultural touchstone for young men (promoted in large part by parents and caregivers). I’m analysing narratives (again) to see how the participants in my ethnography talk about their experiences of violence and what it means to them to be a ‘man’. My biggest argument is that violence really is a part of the lives of many adolescent males in Glasgow, but not in the ways we might stereotypically think (especially because I problematise how far violence can be considered the preserve of only ‘neds’. And yes, I know the term is an issue, which is why it’s in scare quotes).

Maybe, just maybe, by the beginning of the week the fog will have lifted (metaphorically speaking) and I’ll be able to make some headway on this article before I have to start thinking about putting together yet another funding application…

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Sociolinguistics Summer School 3 (part 2)


Tuesday and time for part 2 of Sociolinguistics Summer School. We’ve still got two sessions to run through; Lauren Hall-Lew and Erez Levon.

Lauren’s session focused on language and indexicality; that is, how linguistic variation acquires meaning and the kinds of social meanings which are ‘indexed’ by language. The term was popularised by Michael Silverstein and is now a central tenet of social meaning theory. I’m not going to cover the theory behind indexicality, but you can read this link to learn a bit more about it. Lauren’s talk was on her work on Californian English and an area of San Francisco called ‘the Sunset District‘ (an area which is settled by both Asian Americans and European Americans). This area is especially interesting because it demonstrates a range of vocalic variation which is different from other areas of the Western U.S. The usual pattern in the Western U.S. is that the vowels of LOT ~ THOUGHT are merging while GOOSE and GOAT are fronting, and these changes are more advanced among younger speakers. In San Francisco, though, the distinctions between these vowel sets are maintained irrespective of age. Lauren’s thesis looks at this in a lot of detail, and her plenary was trying to unpack some of the reasons why Asian Americans and European Americans (particular female speakers) might have different correlational patterns for the three variables.

Lastly, Erez Levon’s session finished us up on Friday with a plenary which showed how we might be able to bring together perception and production in sociolinguistic research. Expanding on work by Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Erez recorded a speaker and then manipulated a number of features which have been identified in the literature as features of ‘gay speech’ (including higher mean pitch, more sibilance in /s/ and TH-fronting). Manipulating the recording gave him the following settings:

-pitch -sibilance -TH-fronting
+pitch -sibilance -TH-fronting
+pitch +sibilance -TH-fronting
+pitch +sibilance +TH-fronting
+pitch -sibilance +TH-fronting
-pitch +sibilance +TH-fronting

He then had respondents fill out a questionnaire which tested whether they thought the speaker was neat, friendly,  and so on. By being able to monitor which manipulated features the respondent was listening to, he was able to show that changes in their perception of friendliness, neatness, gayness and so on were related to changes in the speech signal. Some of his findings were really interesting, including the negative correlation between effeminacy and friendliness (so the more effeminate a speaker sounds, the less friendly they are perceived), but the biggest thing was that we need to start thinking about how to relate production with perception, otherwise how do we (as sociolinguists) know whether our intuitions about things like social meaning and so on, are right? Thinking about how speech is perceived and accessing that in some way gives more reliability to our interpretations of the speech signal.

All in all, the week was a fantastic success, and the organisers did a great job in bringing everything together in the way that they did. More than anything, though, I was really glad to be around folk discussing sociolinguistic work and hearing about the kinds of research people are working on.

Sociolinguistics Summer School 3


I didn’t have time during it, but now that my holiday is almost over, I reckoned I should try and write down my thoughts on the Sociolinguistics Summer School in Glasgow from a few weeks ago. First thing to say is that the week was an inspiring and intellectually satisfying time (I’m not sure why, but I always feel really pretentious using words like ‘intellectually’…). The guest speakers (Devyani Sharma, Jane Stuart-Smith, Daniel Johnston, Erez Levon and Lauren Hall-Lew) all offered insightful and thought-provoking seminar sessions which not only show-cased their own research, but suggested a myriad of future directions for sociolinguistic theory and methodology. I don’t have space to go through everything all the speakers covered throughout the week, but I will try and give at least a general outline of the kinds of things they were talking about and

Devyani Sharma kicked the week off on Monday morning by talking about her work on language and ethnicity. Drawing on recent research she’s been conducting at Queen Mary, Devyani outlined some of the ways in which ethnicity has been operationalised in the literature over the past 20 or so years, and the way different authors view the influence of ethnicity on language variation and change (e.g. whether it’s psychological, identity-focused, and so on). The thing that excited me the most, though, was her attempts at showing how variation unfolds over time (something that’s becoming increasingly more important over the past five years or so). Rather than analysing a single variable (or even two or three variables) at the aggregate level (i.e. taking every token of a variable and charting how that variable patterns at a general level), Devyani showed how a range of variables changed between Indian English, Southern Standard British English and Cockney English by using colour-coded lines which showed the increase and decrease of the concentration of that specific varieties variants. Essentially, what Devyani is doing is moving away from a static picture of variation to something more dynamic, and it clearly demonstrated how variables act in concert with one another (or ‘clustering’) rather than in isolation.

On Tuesday, Jane Stuart-Smith talked about the Glasgow Media Project. This is an on-going ESRC-funded project which aims to understand why Glaswegian (and Scottish English more generally) appears to have ‘English’ features such as TH-fronting ([tuf] instead of [tuθ]), R-vocalisation ([bʌd] instead of [bɪɹd]) and L-vocalisation ([pipo] instead of [pipəl]). Those uninitiated to the ways of the IPA, that’s tooth, bird and people respectively. Generally, Scottish English shouldn’t have these kinds of features, but it does (or at least, Glaswegian does, other parts of Scotland are lagging behind somewhat). Traditional ways of modelling how a sound change spreads (such as the wave model and the gravity model) don’t work, primarily because these models rely on people moving to a particular area and acquiring a feature (thus it spreads via face-to-face communication), or through some sort of ‘locale strength’ with larger cities demonstrating more of an influence on smaller cities (the Gravity Model is one explanation as to why London is so linguistically and socially influential). But in Glasgow, these models are flawed because they people who are leading these changes (working-class adolescents) don’t move, and they don’t particularly recognise London (or other large English cities) as sites of influence. Jane’s work offers an alternative explanation based on the influence of the media, in particular, broadcast media, because it’s one thing that working-class Glaswegians (especially those who are the most advanced innovators) actually watch (and one important programme is EastEnders). But Jane’s argument is that it’s not simply passive viewing that causes someone to acquire a feature, but rather it’s active engagement with the programme (almost to the point of treating the programme and its characters as ‘real’). Moreover, if a speaker does acquire a feature a character uses on the programme (whether it’s TH-fronting or whatever), then that speaker has to integrate this feature within their already existing linguistic system. It’s not enough for me to watch EastEnders, hear an instance of TH-fronting, and then all of a sudden I’ll use that feature all the time. Instead, I have to have an active engagement with the show, and then that feature has to be integrated into my existing system. Jane’s work is really important primarily because it challenges existing sociolinguistic theories on how a sound change spreads, and it has important implications for how we understand the influence and effects of media on language variation and change.

Daniel Johnson on Wednesday changed the pace a little bit by focusing on methodology, primarily the use of statistical analysis in sociolinguistics. He did amazing work with the stats programme R. Now, I’ve never used R before (I’m an SPSS person myself), but after seeing Dan’s plenary, I’m more and more convinced that it’s what I should be using. The main thrust of his argument was that we shouldn’t be using fixed effects modelling for analysing sociolinguistic data, primarily because fixed effects models give too much weight to individual token counts and speakers. So, you might end up having 10 speakers (5 males and 5 females) and 100 tokens, but those 100 tokens are spread unevenly across your sample (so it could be something like 3 7 12 8 4 6 25 5 15 15). Using fixed effects models might give you a statistically significant result of gender, but it could also be because your data is skewed towards the male speakers. Mixed effects models, on the other hand, attempt to balance this skew out and give you a more realistic picture of how the data is behaving. To drive home his point, he took a bunch of data and analysed it first using F.E. models and then M.E. models which showed just how much can be hidden using F.E. models. Really fantastic stuff and very good methodological issues were raised throughout his talk. Basically, though, we should all be using M.E. models if we want a truly accurate picture of our data, but F.E. models are also good so long as you know what the limitations of the approach are.

Ok, this is getting a bit long, so I’ll save Lauren Hall-Lew and Erez Levon’s work till Tuesday, but I should wrap with a quick word on the post-graduate student presentations. In a nutshell, they were fantastic. Clear, concise, professional, and high-quality, and all confidently delivered with style and panache. And seriously, that’s not hyperbole, they were all really brilliant, and it assured me that the future of sociolinguistics is bright and sunny.

P.S. Oh, and I gave a talk as well on getting a career in academia which is here. Thanks again to Lynn Clark for helping me figure out what to talk about!

Competitive co-operation


The intrepid explorer....

So week 1 of annual leave is done and dusted (Wales is an amazing country and well worth a visit by the way). This week, I tackle the second half of my annual leave wherein I’ll be stuck in Birmingham for the whole week. Alas, I’ve now come to terms with my current urban abode and I’m actually quite looking forward to mooching around the city and ‘chilling out’ (I think I’m now too old to be using this phrase…).

It’ll also give me a little bit of time to focus on getting some writing done, and I thought that since there’s been little in the way of ‘sociolinguistic’ chat thus far on the blog, I should try and remedy that somewhat (otherwise I should rename the blog to something like ‘doesnttalkmuchaboutlinguisticslinguist.com’.

One of my areas of research is urban adolescent male language use, specifically Glasgow (although I do have plans to move my research to Birmingham adolescent male speech). The bulk of my PhD thesis centered on providing an acoustic analysis of speech data and relating differential patterns of variation to particular group membership. I collected all my conversational data during a three-year ethnography of a high school in the south side of Glasgow and it was on this data I did the acoustic analysis. Since the data was conversational, though, the adolescents I recorded talked about a variety of things, including their home life, what they wanted to do when they finished school, what they thought about the local area and so on. One day we were talking about fights that had happened between them and whether it had affected their friendships or not. As we were talking, there was a fascinating exchange between two of the participants. I’ve included part of the excerpt below (‘translated’ into Standard English):

  1. Phil:               So I- I really really wasn’t crying.
  2. Nathan:        Aye, I wasn’t saying you were crying,
  3.                         but it did look like you were crying.
  4. Phil:               No, it’s think it’s just cause my eyes,
  5.                          it looks like I’m crying.
  6.                         Do I look as if I’m crying now?
  7. Nathan:        No, but I did see something.

At the time of writing my thesis (in 2009), this section of data formed about three pages of my ethnographic discussion, but it always stuck in my head because of its inherent contradictibility. In line 2, Nathan says ‘I wasn’t saying you were crying’ and then IN HIS NEXT TURN says the complete opposite thing (‘It did look like you were crying)! While we can argue as to whether there is an internal inconsistency here or not (in formal logic terms), I would argue that Nathan’s second turn here does something interesting in the context of the conversation which requires further investigation. This excerpt had always puzzled me and even though I wrote about it in my thesis, I didn’t have time to give it the attention it deserved. After I submitted, I put together a conference paper for a conference in Helsinki last year and over the past six months or so, I’ve been working this conference paper up into an article.

Basically, my argument (so far) goes like this:

In general folk-linguistic ideology, men’s speech is considered competitive and women’s speech co-operative (see Jennifer Coates’ work in this area for substantiation of this claim). Over the last 15 years or so, however, this dichotomy has come under increasing scrutiny for its lack of sophistication in accounting for the complexity of situated language use. Importantly, work from Penelope EckertJacqueline Guendouzi and Deborah Tannen has argued that speakers don’t simply draw on resources from one pole or another, but that utterances can be orientated simultaneously towards both (cf. co-operative competition in Eckert’s article). Much of the work in this area has been on female speakers, but very little attention has been paid to how male speakers might exploit strategies which cannot be easily correlated with competitive or cooperative.

If we take the data excerpt from above, it is very difficult to pin-point whether Nathan is being competitive or co-operative. On the one hand, he is offering a face-threatening act which calls into question Phil’s emotional fragility (cf. ‘crying’), but on the other, he immediately mitigates (and in some senses withdraws) his accusation. Before we get into why this particular pattern might exist, we have to take a slight detour through some background info.

One over-riding tendency in language and gender research is that the gender of the speaker tends to influence the kinds of interpretations offered on the data by the researcher. It’s often something (generally) unconscious, but researchers are only human and are influenced by their own assumptions and preconceptions of the world in which they live. Being aware of this goes some way towards reducing the impact of this, and an article by Deborah Tannen on gossip among male university undergraduates is an excellent example of the kind of analysis which can be done when ‘another set of eyes’ looks at the data (in this article, Tannen reanalyses some data originally collected and analysed by one of her students). With this in mind, we might be tempted to see Nathan’s contributions here as wholly competitive and face-threatening since this fits in with general ideologies surround male language use. He’s trying to get one up on Phil by calling into question his sense of ‘tough’ masculinity and his turns seem to suggest a rather competitive stance. The other alternative is that the turn is fully co-operative, but then why would Nathan say that it did look like Phil was crying? Surely if it was co-operative, Nathan would have framed this exchange differently? This is all fine and dandy, except that I don’t think that this is the full story.

The other other alternative is that (like the work of Eckert and Guendouzi), it is reductive to think of language use in terms of ‘competitive’ or ‘co-operative’ (why should it only be one or the other?). Instead, we should think of Nathan’s turns here as ‘polysemous’ (that is, meaning one thing and another simultaneously) in that it is ‘competitively-co-operative’. By doing so, Nathan achieves two aims at the same time: 1) challenge Phil’s claim to ‘tough’ masculinity and 2) mitigate his contribution in order to maintain the friendship. In some senses, the participants here are ‘playing a game’ and both are aware of it. We have to take into account the fact that the participants are friends and are unlikely to go the full way of competitive dialogue (it’s risky, it could escalate etc etc), and the exchange here is testament to this fact.

Competition works (on some level) by the individuals involved in the competition co-operating in the endeavour. If I’m playing a game of football or rugby with people (competitive) and I decide I don’t want to play or be involved any more (co-operative), then the game ceases to be (or at least, I stop being a part of that particular interaction). I reckon that something similar is happening in this excerpt.

My thinking still needs a bit of refinement before I hit the ‘submit to journal’ button, but I think I’m on the right track here. Now I just need to drag myself out of my post-Wales bliss and get cracking on trying to finish it this week!

The wonderful world of trains


Occasionally, you’ll sit on a train knowing that the universe has smiled upon you. You think back on your journey to the station, where you arrived 15 minutes early, remembering the pleasant breeze which blew as you walked in the July sunshine. You are a picture of calmness and serenity, comforted by the knowledge that you haven’t overlooked some important detail nor left a vital piece of equipment in the house. By any measure, it has been the perfect start to your trip, as you settle down into your seat which was reserved several weeks in advance, clutching the tickets which were delivered directly to your house.

Sometimes, maybe a minute before departure, you’ll encounter a whirlwind of feverish activity as someone rushes up to the platform and jumps into the train. The passenger (let’s assume he’s a male for the purpose of this story), is hot, sweaty, disheveled, red-faced and panting, but with a faint smile of victory on his face. He looks around and finds an empty seat, collapsing in a heap of bags, suitcases, and laptop cases, and breathes a quiet sigh of relief. And then, as he looks up at the ‘This train stops at…’ sign in the carriage, you might catch the brief look of panic which crosses his face. Instead of being reminded of the comfortable and familiar names through which he will whizz on his way home, he is faced with a dizzying collection of weird and exotic places he doesn’t recognise. Coleshill, Nuneaton, Hinckley, Narborough. Leicester.

The sudden realization that he’s on the wrong train hits him like a ton of bricks. As he frantically gathers up his things, he hears the sound of the three beeps which herald the the train moving off. With one last desperate lunge, he tries to stop the door from slamming in his face, but it is to no avail.

The train starts to trundle away from the platform, leaving this poor, hapless sap stuck standing by the door and looking like a fool.

This mistake could be a costly one. It might cause him to miss the train he was scheduled to get. It might take him over an hour to get back into Birmingham. It might mean having to wait two hours to get the next train to Glasgow.

Now, if you were in this situation, you might experience a combination of feelings in watching this drama unfold in front of you. Sympathy. Amusement. Perhaps even an element of schadenfreude. But probably the most prominent feeling might be relief that you weren’t the one in that position.

The next time you do see that man, though, spare a thought for him and try your best to stifle your laughter if you can. He’s most likely incredibly embarrassed and doesn’t really know where to look, and knowing that everyone is staring at him isn’t going to make things any easier.

And for the record, that story isn’t about me. Honest. 

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