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

The Early History of Sociolinguistics in Glasgow

October 11, 2011 3 comments

The field of sociolinguistics is relatively new (at least in the ‘quantitative sociolinguistic’ format that William Labov developed through his work on Martha’s Vineyard), and Glasgow was one of the first places outside of the United States where Labov’s techniques and methods were applied in a large-scale sociolinguistic investigation (the other was Norwich in an influential study carried out by Peter Trudgill). The man who was key in developing the field of sociolinguistic enquiry in Glasgow was a researcher named Ronald Macaulay, and his book Language, Social Class and Education: A Glasgow Study (1977) was a milestone in sociolinguistic research in Scotland. Given that the tools and techniques of phonological analysis which we take for granted in contemporary sociolinguistic research (stuff like PRAAT, for example) were unavailable to Macaulay, the robustness of his findings are perhaps all the more remarkable, and his work really was a pioneering study in sociolinguistics. The work was based on preliminary research Macaulay had carried out with Gavin Trevelyan for a Social Science Research Council report on language, education and employment in Glasgow, working with teachers, employers and communities across the city. This report formed the basis of Language, Social Class and Education: A Glasgow Study, which also introduced more qualitative analysis of attitudes towards Glaswegian.

In terms of his analysis, Macaulay was interested primarily in how linguistic variation correlated with social class. With Glasgow being such a class-conscious city, the idea that how you spoke depended on which class you were in (marked through things like where you were from and what you did for a job) was an accepted social ideology, but it had never been tested empirically before Macaulay’s work. The study focused on five main phonological variables (Macaulay 1977: 27):

  1. The vowel in words like hit, kill, and risk
  2. The vowel in words like school, book, full, and fool (yup, Scottish English doesn’t contrast the final two words)
  3. The vowel in words like hat, sad, and back 
  4. The diphthong in words like now, down, and house
  5. The glottal plosive as an alternative to /t/ in words like butter and get

Now, obviously Macaulay’s work came out well before John Wells’ work on lexical sets, so he didn’t use them as a descriptor for the variables he was looking at. It was also before we knew more about the phonological structure of Scottish English (Macaulay 1977: 29), so in his analysis of the TRAP/BATH/PALM set¹, he only included those words which belonged to the TRAP set, rather than the BATH/PALM set. Through an auditory analysis of these variables (using a point-scale format and giving points to variants depending on whether they were ‘more’ or ‘less’ Glaswegian), and by categorising his speakers according to the Registrar-General’s classification of occupations (Macaulay 1977: 18), he was able to show how different social classes used different forms of the variable. For example, for variable 1 (the vowel sounds in hill), the highest rated variant was [ʌ] (scored at 5 points) and the lowest rated variant was [ɪ] (scored at 1 point), with a number of intermediary variants. So, the higher the mean index, the more likely speakers were to produce  [ʌ]-like tokens, and the lower the mean index, the more likely speakers were to produce [ɪ]-like tokens. The analysis showed that ‘speakers from the lower social classes were more likely to use a vowel that is more retracted and lowered than speakers from the higher social class groups’ (Macaulay 1977: 31). A relationship between linguistic variation and social class was found for the rest of the variables, ultimately giving a stronger empirical basis to folk-ideologies about language use in Glasgow.

But where Macaulay’s work really shines is in his discussion of the qualitative data, particularly the interviews with the teachers and employers. It is in this section of his book where interviewees make clear their attitudes and ideologies about Glaswegian and Glasgow. It was perhaps the following quote (Macaulay 1977: 94) which helped me pursue my own line of research:

“The accent of the lowest state of Glaswegian is the ugliest one can encounter, but that is partly because it is associated with the unwashed and the violent.”

It’s important to say that this isn’t Macaulay’s opinion on Glaswegian, but rather that of a university lecturer (quell surprise!), and when I read it, it hit home just how deeply-entrenched the negative stereotypes of Glasgow as a criminal, dirty and violent city are and how influential this image can be on people’s perception of Glaswegians.

Macaulay’s work was a massive inspiration to me during my own research, and I was lucky enough to meet him a few times at various conferences over the years, and it was this book in particular which was one catalyst to me pursuing my PhD thesis topic. I’m also hugely chuffed that he’ll be contributing a chapter on the history of sociolinguistic research in Scotland to an edited volume I’m currently working on, so watch this space!

The Social Linguist

1. Paul Johnston argues in his chapter ‘Regional Variation’ (in Edinburgh History of the Scots Language), the lexical sets which are used for English English don’t work for Scottish English because the distribution is different. For example, while TRAP, BATH and PALM are the lexical sets for American English and English English, these lexical sets all have the same vowel in Scottish English /a/. Johnston’s keyword for this vowel is CAT instead. Obviously, Paul’s work wasn’t around when Macaulay was doing his research, so he had to make do with what was available.

A Retrospective on Scotland at the RWC2011

A week later, the pain has subsided enough for me to talk about Scotland’s showing at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Now, many of you may not know that I am a rugby fan. I only got into it about five years ago when I took an ex-girlfriend to a Scotland vs. Italy game for a Valentine’s Day gift (incidentally, Scotland got beat…), but from that point on it was a match made in heaven (between me and rugby, not me and the ex-girlfriend). This was especially surprising to me since I had hated all forms of team sports when I was growing up, and the fact that I disliked football (remembering that I grew up in Scotland) put me on a social footing equal with that of a leper. But rugby tapped into something I had no idea I had the capacity for: passion at a bunch of guys running around a pitch and smashing each other with bone-crunching tackles in the pursuit of a try.

This passion typically manifests itself as very loud shouting at the action. I cheer and scream as my team do well (or more usually, do something stupid), and as someone who is generally quite reserved, this display is at odds with the majority of my day-to-day behaviour. And it’s only through watching rugby that I’ve come to an understanding about why sport is followed so vigorously by millions of people. When Scotland played Australia a couple of years ago and Matt Giteau (in an uncharacteristically bad kicking display) missed the conversion which would have won Australia the game had it gone over, the bar I was in literally exploded in a scene of joy which would typically be associated with the barman announcing all drinks were on the house (especially in Scotland). It felt amazing to be a part of it.

So it was with great expectation that I looked forward to Rugby World Cup 2011, this time held in New Zealand. The last world cup around was in France in 2007. Scotland had made it through to the quarter finals and were facing Argentina. A dogged game followed and Argentina won 19 – 13 after some ridiculous ‘decision making’ by Dan Parks to try a ridiculous cross-field kick in the last minute… It was the first (but unfortunately not the last) time I was to be psychologically gutted about losing.

When the draw was announced for RWC 2011, Scotland was placed in the same group as Argentina and England, but a series win against Argentina in 2010 and a close run defeat by England at the Six Nations 2011 meant that Scotland were reasonably confident of qualifying for the quarter finals. Coupled with a win against South Africa and the appointment of Andy Robinson, things were looking up for Scottish rugby.

Unfortunately, however, Scotland seems to be afflicted by a severe case of ‘try-line-phobia’, meaning that the games we have won (Australia, S.A., Argentina) have been decided through the kicking prowess of Chris Paterson and Dan Parks (as a footnote, I shook Chris Paterson’s hand after the Bath vs. Edinburgh game in the Heineken Cup. I squealed like a complete fan-boy afterwards). The lack of tries means that if your team scores two penalties, it only requires the opposition to score one try and convert it for them to be ahead.

After two unconvincing wins against Romania and Georgia (with the game in Georgia a particularly close run affair), we had to defeat Argentina to have any hope of qualifying to the quarter finals. And for 70 minutes, a win looked to be on the cards, with a pack controlling the game (in spite of losing Euan Murray due to his religious beliefs preventing him from playing on a Sunday) and the backs occasionally threatening the try line. Dan Parks and Ruaridh Jackson made a couple of well-timed drop goals, but even with ‘penalty advantage’ (meaning that although the opposition has given away a penalty, the attacking team is given the option of continuing to pressure for a try with the knowledge that if they mess it up, they can still fall back on being given a penalty and a shot at 3-points), Dan Parks went for the drop-goal when we should have gone for the try.

It was in the 72 minute that a sloppy restart was totally uncontested by Scotland (the team who is scored against kicks the ball to the opposition to restart the game, so Argentina kicked it to Scotland). Argentina collected the ball and an Argentine back managed to squeeze through four defenders and touch down, and the conversion duly slotted by Contempomi more or less ended Scotland’s hopes of progressing as Argentina went in front 13-12. But there was still about 5 minutes left on the clock, and Scotland did well to scramble the ball down to the Argentine 22, pushing for the drop goal that would win us the game. A few line-outs on the Argentine 5 metre line put the ball down in the red-zone and the forwards battered the ball up through the phases, readying Dan Parks to go for the drop goal.

What happened next is unclear (even from the replays). At the base of the ruck, the opposition team is deemed ‘off-side‘ if they’re in front of the back foot of the last player involved in the ruck. This offence generally results in a penalty being awarded to the attacking team. Where it gets confusing is that off-side is only valid so long as the ball isn’t in play and as soon as the ball is touched (usually by the attacking team’s scrum half), off-side no longer applies and the defending team can move in front of the rear-most foot of players involved in the ruck (clear as mud so far, right?). In the case of this game, it looks like Mike Blair (Scotland scrum half) touches the ball to pass it to Dan Parks for the drop goal, but as soon as he does so, Contempomi manages to get in the way of Parks and forces him to kick on his weaker left foot. The debate which raged after the game was whether Contempomi was off-side (interestingly, he actually admitted that he was off-side), but it was missed by referee Wayne Barnes, the ball sailed on the left of the uprights and Scotland were denied a clear penalty.

But that’s not why we lost the game. We lost the game because of inattention at a crucial point in the game (the restart which led to Argentina’s try) and an clinical inability to score tries. This came back to haunt us in the game against England, a game Scotland had to win by 8 points or more to have a chance of progressing to the QFs. We didn’t, and the end of the game had an eerily familiar slant to it: 10 minutes to go, botched restart, poor defending, England try, Scotland defeat.

The Scotland team looked shell-shocked at the end of the game, with many of the team openly weeping at being kicked out of the World Cup. Truth be told, it was hard enough for me to not start crying. The hopes of Scottish rugby fans were dashed by two teams who were offered only one chance each to score a try, and they both took them.

It’s hard being a Scottish rugby fan, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, and come February next year, I’ll be sitting there with my pint of Guinness watching the Six Nations, screaming and cheering my team with utter abandon, believing to my core that we can win. Otherwise, what’s the point of being a fan?

The Social Linguist

Rugby World Cup 2011

It’s all over for Scotland, having just been kicked out of the rugby world cup by losing to England…

Not sure I can say much, so have a picture:

The (disappointed) Social Linguist

Categories: Uncategorized