Archive for October, 2011

Ralph Fiennes blames Twitter for ‘eroding’ language…

October 29, 2011 2 comments





Ralph Fiennes blames Twitter for ‘eroding’ language – Telegraph.

More on this on Tuesday, but for now, I think it’s enough to say that Ralph Fiennes, despite his admirable acting talent, isn’t exactly best qualified to talk about this. Also, he’s wrong.

– The Social Linguist

Categories: Uncategorized

Wagwan bruv?

October 22, 2011 11 comments

Some of you might have picked up this story yesterday when I tweeted about it, and while it’s great that the BBC is taking pains to discuss language-related issues (cf. the issue of ‘Americanisms’ in British English here and here, or the idea that spelling mistakes lose businesses money), I kind of wish they would do it… I dunno… right?

The article is built around a new movie called Sket which is about girl gangs (in London, I think), and as part of the ‘drive for authenticity’, the producer, director and screen-writers decided to get in touch with ex-gang members (a concept completely unproblematised in the article: e.g. what is a ‘gang’, what was the basis for categorising the individuals as ‘members’ and so on) to get an insight into the ‘real language’ used on ‘the streets’ by ‘the youth’ (I got cramp in my fingers from all those scare quotes there…). This ‘multi-ethnic youth vernacular’ (and no-one I know would call it this; the more accurate term would be ‘multi-cultural London English, from work by Kerswill, Fox, Cheshire & Khan), is identified as ‘slang’ in the article, but it would be more accurate to call it a dialect.

The article opens up with the following quote ‘Ex-gang members were used as script advisers on a new British film about girl gangs so that the language would be authentic’. Now, I’m all for ‘sociolinguistic authenticity’, but the article glosses over a whole bunch of important points to do with language use, particularly adolescent language use, all in favour of the sound-bite of ‘young people are different’, and I think that given that no linguists were consulted for the article (beyond a few quotes from Tony Thorne who is the editor of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang), it’s important to offer a ‘rebuttal’¹ (ok, that’s the last bunch of scare quotes. Honestly. Well, at least until the next line).

  • What does it mean to be ‘authentic’

Better minds than mine have grappled with this idea, but we have to ask what it means to be authentic. A special edition of collected papers in the Journal of Sociolinguistics a few years ago suggested some of the ways in which we might be able to conceptualise authenticity, and a particularly useful quote to think about in relation to the work on Sket is from Mary Bucholtz (2003: 398) who says ‘real language – that is, authentic language – is language produced in authentic contexts by authentic speakers’. So, by drawing on insights from ex-gang members, the language used in Sket is taken to be an authentic representation of gang language. By using the experience of real gang members (or ex-gang members) who are familiar with a particular form of language, the writers hope that this will imbue the movie with a sense of the real speech patterns of the street. But because it is a movie about gangs rather than a documentary or an ethnographic film, it can only be an approximation of reality; the script is still constructed and that leads to questions about how authentic it can actually be. Moreover, Bucholtz (2003: 400) argues that ‘the idea of authenticity gains its force from essentialism, for the possibility of a ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ group member relies on the belief that what differentiates ‘real’ members from those who only pretend to authentic membership is that the former, by virtue of biology or culture or both, possess inherent and perhaps even inalienable characteristics critical of membership’. With no background information about the participants who offered their services to the movie, we have no idea why the producers chose particular participants over others. Did they rely on the fact that the participants were in the right place at the right time? Is every teenager who dresses up in a hoodie a ‘gang member’? How motivated were the producer and script writer by essentialist definitions of gang membership?

  • People are notoriously unreliable at reporting their own speech habits

As research in sociolinguistics has shown over the years, speakers are unreliable reporters of their own speech habits, and teenagers should be no exception. Trudgill (1972, 1974) shows just how wrong speakers can get it when they talk about their own speech. Trudgill gave the participants in his study a self-evaluation test which aimed to get them to identify which of two or more main variants forms (varying between the local Norwich form and the more prestigious RP form) they used in their own speech. Two of the variables ((er) in words like ear and here, and (a) in words like trap and flap) showed up some quite interesting results. For (er), only 28% of men and 18% of women were able to identify which variant they used. For the women, 68% over-reported their usage, so they thought that they used the more prestigious variant when they didn’t, but only 22% of men did the same. By contrast, 50% of the men under-reported their usage, so they thought that they used the less prestigious variant when they didn’t (only 14% of women did the same). The results for (a) were the same. While this flags up more general issues regarding ideas of covert and overt prestige among speakers, the important thing to note is that we have good evidence that speakers are not very good at identifying how they speak, at least with any accuracy. So when one the teenagers involved in this movie says ‘we would never say “hi” to one another’, we have to be cautious about taking this at face value. Does ‘never’ really mean ‘never’, or is it only in certain contexts and with certain speakers? This applies to a number of other lexical items mentioned in the article, and my own feeling is that teenagers are liable to ‘play up’ the differences in their speech compared to adult speech because it marks them out as different, irrespective of whether those differences are more in their heads than in their speech. Which neatly takes me to my next point…

  • Such discourses of language use cause an ‘othering’ of adolescents

One of the main things to come out of articles like this is that it contributes to an ‘othering’ of adolescents (or at least a specific subset of urban adolescents). By reporting something like ‘adolescents have their own vocabulary’, the media are marking out this group as somehow radically different from everyone else (re: adult society). If you think about this from an anthropological stance, it’s not entirely that far removed from ogling an indigenous tribe because they’ve got different cultural practices from the West… It also plays down the similarities between the language used by teenagers and the language used by everyone else; things are more the same than they are different. Lastly, teenagers using their own vocabulary is nothing new. Every new generation forms its own vocabulary and way of referring to the world, some of which enter common usage (re: cool as just one example), but because this is urban language, it’s somehow something to be commented upon.

  • Are the terms ‘street language’ or ‘gang language’ synonyms for ‘youth language’?

The implicit assumption made in the article is that because the movie is about adolescent gangs and the language in it is language used by adolescent gang members, then that language is used by (all?) adolescents… As far as I can see, it’s a failure of logic, but given that the article quotes Tony Thorne as saying ‘While teen and street talk is nothing new, it has never been so pronounced as it is today’ (boom boom, I’m sure that’s a pun!), it’s clear to see that teen talk and street talk are being equated as one and the same. Not all teenagers will talk like they talk in the movie (or like the ex-gang member consultants). And I don’t necessarily accept that the growth of a ‘teen language’ is more pronounced that at any point in history, although the growth of social media and the speed with which an innovation can spread might make it look more pronounced.

Because the movie is so self-consciously trying to reflect real-life language use, I really do worry that it’ll end up turning out to be like the clip below…

The Social Linguist

1. Incidentally, this is perhaps a good time to plug my iLinC Poster I did on the relationship between academic research and the media at last week’s Interdisciplinary Linguistics Conference at Queen’s University, Belfast.

I seem to be in an interdisciplinary groove at the moment…

I’m sitting here in a packed lecture theatre at BCU tonight where various experts from a diverse range of backgrounds are discussing the background, causes, and contexts of the England Riots which happened during the summer (I wrote about the riots here in case you missed it). The event is being held by the criminology department, and with the conference I was at during the weekend, I seem to be in a rich seam of interdisciplinary thought.

The importance of interdisciplinary research is something I’ve been banging on about for a while now, and one of the reasons I tried to organise the Birmingham Cityscapes back in June as a way of bringing together different people working on Birmingham from different backgrounds from the public, private and academic sectors. When we draw on different disciplinary approaches, we are able to obtain a richer, more nuanced perspective, but the difficulty is often getting people with different backgrounds to engage with the literature, the methodologies and approaches from a different field, and the different theoretical orientations from different fields might not necessarily co-exist in a harmonious way.

But despite the difficulties in doing interdisciplinary research, I think that it can be a useful way of obtaining a perspective on a research area which we wouldn’t typically be able to get. For example, the combination of ethnography with quantitative methods in my work and other people’s like Penny Eckert and Norma Mendoza-Denton has led to far more nuanced interpretation of the data than would otherwise be possible with traditional quantitative methods.

Apologies for the shortness of today’s blog, but trying to blog at the same time as listening to a lecture and tweeting about it is mightily difficult. I’m not skilled at multi-tasking…

The Social Linguist

Categories: Research

Interdisciplinary Linguistics Conference

For those of you who have been following my twitter feed for the past two days, I’ve been (trying to) live tweet the plenary speeches and some of the session papers at the first ever Interdisciplinary Linguistics Conference at Queen’s University, Belfast. The conference was set up as a way for undergraduates, postgraduates and staff from across disciplines to share their research and establish interdisciplinary links which might open up future avenues for research. A joint initiative between the Schools of English, Education and Modern Languages, the conference has been a resounding success, attracting over 200 delegates from around 30 countries. The theme of the conference was about the impact linguistics can have beyond academia, and to this end, the three plenary speeches (from Professor Deborah Cameron, Professor Michael Halliday and Professor Ruquaiya Hasan) have all focused on why linguistics is important and the contributions the field has had (or can have) on a range of disciplines, from social theory to gender studies and beyond.

The range of session papers has been equally impressive, from a study of Inception and text-world theory, to the role of knowledge structures in undergraduate writing tasks, to the acoustic correlates of emotion in Mubarak’s political speeches, to the use of pragmatic particle sort of in men and women’s speech. With four parallel sessions, I wasn’t able to attend everything I wanted to (and with the rugby on this morning, I decided to forgo this morning’s session. I’m such a rebel academic…), but the papers that I did raised some important points about the interdisciplinary nature of linguistics and offered some pertinent ways how linguistics can contribute to other fields of study.

What was also great about this conference was how well supported it has been by post-graduate research students from universities all over the world. They’ve been offered a supportive, encouraging and intellectually stimulating environment in which they can explore not only their own research, but the research of others, and the organisers of the conference really should take their hats off for putting together such a diverse and interesting range of poster and paper topics.

Also, Belfast is a wonderful city, and I want to import a key of Guinness from Ireland to Birmingham every month, simply because the Irish nectar tastes so much better here than anywhere else…

The Social Linguist