Home > Research > The Early History of Sociolinguistics in Glasgow

The Early History of Sociolinguistics in Glasgow


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.

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  1. vocalised
    October 11, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Nice post! I just assigned half of Macaulay’s recent methods book to my Honours students, this week, because I thought it gave such a good overview of the field and some of its methodological challenges. And he is a wonderful writer.

    • October 11, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      I’ve not managed to make my way through that book yet, but he is a very good writer, really accessible, clear and understandable. I really like his Locating Dialect in Discourse book, which is well worth a look if you haven’t managed to get through it.

  2. a.d.p.h
    October 13, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    I’ve just started writing a blog, and it is in no way relevant to your post, so this is the first and final time I’ll use your comments section for self-promotion. But it does link to your blog so I think general netiquette means that’s allowed.

    Also, if you know of any (ideally from within Discourse-analytic traditions) work on language, masculinity and violence, let me know because it might come it useful soon (not that I’ve decided upon anything at this stage) . . .

    The blog is here: http://festeringhillock.wordpress.com
    (The name of the blog is illuminated for you – and anyone else – upon reading)

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