Home > Research > Linguistic variation among urban adolescent males in Glasgow: Some results

Linguistic variation among urban adolescent males in Glasgow: Some results


I’ve been blogging for about two months now, and although I’ve touched a little bit on my research here, I’ve not really said much about what dominated my life between 2004 – 2009. During this time, I was fortunate enough to be awarded an ESRC post-graduate scholarship which put me through my M.A. and my PhD at the University of Glasgow (under the careful supervision of Dr Jane Stuart-Smith). Throughout my undergraduate, I was quite good at two subjects: history of Scots, and sociolinguistics. The first one I loved because it was great learning more about where Scots came from and how it got to where it is today, particularly all the social, historical and economic factors that led to this. The second one I loved was because it was the first time I had really seen just how key language was to us as humans, and how variable and rich it was. When I was thinking about potential topic areas for my post-graduate work (partially motivated by other factors which I’ll talk about another day), I decided to stick with these two areas, but to focus more on contemporary Scots rather than historical Scots.

One day, I was in my supervisor’s office talking about different topics that I could pursue as a dissertation, and we started talking about teenagers in Glasgow, and specifically about how ‘neds‘ in Glasgow were assumed to have a particular way of talking (as demonstrated herehere and here). What was also interesting to me was that when people performed this kind of ‘ned speak’, they weren’t just using a specific constellation of linguistic features (like high pitch and nasality), they were also drawing on ideologies of anti-social behaviour, criminality and physical aggression. While all of these ideas were bound up in specific performances of this group, we had no idea if young people in Glasgow who might identify (or be identified) as a ‘ned’ actually spoke in the way people assumed they did. Moreover, we had no idea if other adolescent males in Glasgow who might not identify as a ‘ned’ might have other kinds of ways of constructing their social identity. And lastly, we had no idea exactly what kinds of social practices urban adolescent males (‘ned’ or ‘non-ned’) might orientate towards. What we needed (inspired in large part by the work of Penny Eckert and Norma Mendoza-Denton in the US and Emma Moore in the UK), was some sort of locally-grounded, ‘bottom-up’ research which gave us a better understanding of the lived experiences of urban adolescent males from their own perspective, rather than from a ‘top-down’ researcher-inspired perspective. As so, a research project was born.

In early 2005 (I think!), I started fieldwork in a high school in the south side of Glasgow using a qualitative research method known as ethnography. Although widely established in anthropological linguistics and US sociolinguistics, it hadn’t really taken off in the UK at this point, primarily because the UK had been dominated by work which saw linguistic variation as reflective of social differences rather than as a constituent part of social difference (so, I speak like a middle-class lecturer because I am a middle-class lecturer, rather than, I speak in the way I do so as to perform ‘middle-class lecturer’). The kind of work pioneered by Eckert and her colleagues set a new paradigm for variationist studies and broke tradition with more established quantitative sociolinguistic approaches, but this approach hadn’t really settled down in the UK, and definitely not in Scotland. I’m pretty sure I was the first person to bring both together in Scottish sociolinguistic research (of course, my supervisor had nothing to do with this decision…).

Over the next three years in Banister Academy (the name I gave to the high school), I was able to learn more about how the participants in my study constructed their social identities and this provided me with a more nuanced perspective of urban adolescent identities more generally. One significant advantage of my approach was that I was able to see the speakers as heterogenous rather than as one big group of ‘working-class male speakers’, and this afforded a level of analytical insight that would have otherwise been missed had I adopted more traditional sociolinguistic approaches. For example, instead of there just being one category of ‘male speakers’, what I actually had were four distinct groups (the Alternatives, the Sports, the Schoolies and the ‘Neds’) which differentiated themselves from one another along all sorts of axes, including dress, behaviour, speech, attitudes, beliefs and so on (these are generally known as ‘social practices’). What was massively interesting was that when their linguistic variation was analysed (I was particularly interested in the vowel sound of words like cat, man, and grab), the speakers showed quite different patterns.

The first graph shows the results of the analysis in Year 2 (so, the second year of fieldwork) for three groups (Alternative, Sports and ‘Neds’). For those unfamiliar with reading these kinds of graphs, x-axis is the horizontal axis of inside of the vowel space and the y-axis is the vertical axis of inside the vowel space. Essentially, the graph is meant to (roughly) represent where the vowel sounds would be produced (the scores are averages).

As you can see, the three ‘ned’ members (Danny, Max and Noah) are more fronted and lowered than the other six speakers in the Alternative and Sports groups (and this was statistically significant), which shows that this vowel is somehow involved in marking speakers out as ‘different’ from other speakers. And this kind of pattern more or less repeats itself when we look at the data from Year 3 (which also includes the Schoolie group).

The ‘ned’ speakers are still quite lowered and fronted, but this time, the Schoolies are raised quite a bit from the ‘ned’ speakers (again, a statistically significant difference). So not only are speakers differentiating themselves through what they do (their non-linguistic social practices), but they’re also differentiating themselves through how they speak.

The fact that the ‘neds’ and the Schoolies are at the extremes of social behaviour in the school (e.g. they both have radically different orientations towards the school) seems to also show up in their linguistic variation, and this was something I hadn’t expected to find. This kind of work gives us a lot more information on how speakers are able to make such fine-grained sociolinguistic alterations which align with particular social identities, and how variation maps on to social group membership.

There’s a lot more I could say about all of this, and I’ve not even began to cover my interest in the relationship between language and violence (which made up a significant part of my research), but hopefully this gives you an idea of how I’ve spent the last six years of my (research) life!

– The Social Linguist

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