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Wagwan bruv?


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.

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  1. October 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    I’m with you when you say “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.” It’s Saturday morning and I don’t feel inclined to hit the journals to provide a list of references to support this, but “young people” have grown up in a mass media society where appearing on television is a legitimate career aim. Having watched endless “reality” shows, I suspect that the presence of camera makes them behave in a way that they think they SHOULD behave on TV. They can’t be “themselves” but have to project an image of what they want “themselves” to appear to be.

    This is also likely to be reflected in language, which, as you mention, can be used to solidify a group identity and, in this way, exclude others; in this case, to mark themselves off as different from adults. But this is not a uniquely teenage phenomenon and all of us to some degree are part of linguistic groups that mark us out as “different.” Hell, if you were to record how a group of linguists talk at the bar, you’d be able to give a journalist a week’s worth of work writing about the “bizarre subculture of linguists” who have “their own secret language and codes.

    What makes teenagers (or most of them) different isn’t specifically the language but the psychological and social rules that they have internalized, which in turn shape how they respond to situations i.e. when there are lots of folks running around taking stuff from stores, and no-one is stopping them, is it OK to join in? For me, no, but for some, why not? After all, these shop-keepers are rich, insured, and ripping us off anyway.

  2. david
    October 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Really like your point about the “othering” of adolescents. I think it applies much more widely; you could, and obviously numerous researchers have, find articles that contribute to the “othering” of multiple social or political groups (the most obvious examples being “women” and “asylum seekers” (or immigrants more generally)).

    I didn’t realise your iLinc talk was on research and the media. I’ve been thinking about similar issues recently, mainly with regards to CDA. It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that academic research is ultimately a waste of time, IF your measure of usefulness is based on social impact. Sociolinguistic (in its broadest meaning) investigations rarely have any sort of measurable impact: they don’t seem to change people’s opinions (as your message board data shows), they can often be misreported or (more likely) not reported, and their conclusions rarely lead to policy change (“bad” research and an ill-informed public are perhaps greater catalysts for governmental policy than “good” research).

    With CDA, the issue is even clearer. I sometimes wonder whether looking at, for example, naming choices in the tabloid press is much use at all. After all, newspapers seem to routinely make news up (cf. the Mail’s reporting of the Amanda Knox trial verdict) and use highly suspect means (cf. the hacking scandal). So it’s no surprise that reports themselves are ideologically-driven. And you don’t just come across criticisms of the media by reading Discourse & Society. Chomsky, Media Lens, Ben Goldacre, and Nick Davies (and many more) have continually made these arguments, and to a much wider audience than would read research by someone working within the paradigm of CDA. And, despite this, if you buy a newspaper tomorrow, it will feature the sort of reporting that has been criticised by such researchers. So it makes you wonder what CDA can do (or hope to do). And it’s a different, but similar, case with (socio-)linguistic research more generally.

  3. October 22, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks for your comments @SpeechDudes, would be really good to get some of those references you mention about ‘young people’ and their expectations of behaviour, so if you get a chance…

    I totally agree with your comment about if you watch linguists for a week (or any group I suppose), you’d come to much the same conclusions about them as you would adolescents, but I guess the journalists wouldn’t be thinking along the same kinds of lines.

  4. October 22, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Hi David. Yeah, the iLinC talk was on media/research interface and how we might be able to use social media as a way of engaging with the public more generally, and compared/contrasted traditional media with new media.

    Craig Jackson (Professor of Psychology at BCU) was saying much the same thing as you (i.e. ‘academic research is pointless’), but that’s quite a pessimistic view of what we (try?) to do! Our research might not change masses of social opinion, but you only need to look at what Labov/Baugh/Rickford contributed during the Ebonics debate to see how sociolinguistics might be able to be useful beyond our own field.

    Of course, the whole point of CDA is that it ‘changes the world’, but it’s something that happens one person at a time and with a lot of effort. We’re not going to be able to change the world in one fell swoop, but we need to try 🙂

    • david
      October 22, 2011 at 8:29 pm

      I’d agree. If I subscribed fully to the view I outlined, then I wouldn’t be doing a master’s or hoping to pursue it further. Clearly, academic research amongst a host of other “things” contributes to social change. In the case of CDA, perhaps the hope is that one student, who goes onto become a journalist, will take up that critical view when they start reporting. The pessimism arises when it becomes clear that the entire (social, economic, political) environment seems to prevent them from doing so (and read Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” and Nick Davies “Flat Earth News” because, although theyre not to do with linguistics, they should be a sort of general undergraduate set text!).

      And maybe the pessimistic view I took is problematic in it’s own way, as you suggest, in that it makes it easy to overlook the important contributions academic research, in general, has made. And, upon re-reading, it’s a bit too dismissive to say that Article X in Journal Y hasn’t made any impact at all. To be more specific, I’d argue, for example, that feminism (in it’s broadest sense) HAS made an impact and, of course, part of that is through feminist approaches to linguistics. And this is contrary to the general points I made above.

      I have noticed the trend for academia to look at the impact of research, and that is important. At Birmingham, for example, I’ve noticed that they run classes for research postgrads in disseminating research to a wider audience (i.e. via the media) (having said that, nobody, so far, has made any attempt to actually discuss th media/research interface or impact in general, so kudos there!). But it’ll be interesting to see how “impact” is assessed, if that becomes an important criteria in assessing universities or individual applications to research council funding. It’s difficult to see how “impact” can be quantifiable, given the problems I highlighted.

  5. October 22, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    I met a bunch of the applied linguistics PhD/MA folk at Belfast last week, so I might be heading over to Birmingham to give a talk on the whole academia/media interface. I’ll keep you posted.

    At the conference in Belfast, Cameron argued that the most important kind of impact isn’t the one that’s measured by documents or policy changes, but by the kind which helps communities or individuals, so it can’t be measured by traditional means. Maybe, that’s what we should be aiming for.

  6. October 30, 2011 at 11:57 am

    @David, You’ve made an interesting and important point about CDA (and the wider impact linguistic research in general). I would argue that despite what Deborah Cameron said about the importance of changing one mind at a time, there are some ‘bigger picture’ ways that CDA and other linguistic research can lead to impact on people’s lives – for instance, through influence on policy and law, or through directly engaging with the media.

    I can tell you about two researchers whom I know personally, and whose work I know well. The first case relates to a set of guidelines for avoiding sexist language use produced in Austria in 1999, which were strongly influenced by the research of Ruth Wodak and other researchers in the field. These were adopted by a number of public institutions and media organisations, and recent follow-up research has shown that the forms of language use advocated in these guidelines (e.g. avoiding generic masculine forms) have been taken up to an encouraging degree… though there is still a long way to go, and it is of course difficult to prove a direct relationship between the guidelines and the changes in language use. (N.B. Ruth is actually a very good example of a linguist who has made a difference in all sorts of areas, at least in Austria – e.g. her work on doctor/patient communication, her role as an expert witness in trials and tribunals, interviews and articles in which she challenges right-wing extremists in the media, etc. etc.)

    Another example ( this time of a non-CDA researcher) which relates to the work on MCLE that Robert mentioned in his post, is Paul Kerswill, who has been in the news quite a bit recently. At least occasionally his work has been reported on with some degree of accuracy (see e.g. http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/features/3885529/TOWIEs-dialect-continues-a-lengthy-linguistic-tradition.html). Of course this can go the other way, as when a report on Paul’s work was used by the British National Party to lament the decline of Cockney.

    So I wouldn’t be too disheartened. I do think it is a problem that not enough CDA researchers engage in the type of ‘prospective critique’ (i.e. changing things in the world rather than just critiquing them) that most approaches to CDA advocate. And we certainly aren’t going to change the way the media report in a hurry, sadly. But by venturing outside the ivory towers and trying to make our research visible and accessible to wider publics as best we can, we are at least increasing our chances of making a difference.

  7. November 21, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    All teens are going to try and push the boundaries and if their parents have spent many years teaching them not to swear and to use language correctly then the first way in which they are going to play up is verbally. It is more than irritating when teens don’t speak correctly and use words such as, innit instead of isn’t it. Annoying but in the long run they will look back at how they spoke and acted and be really embarrassed.

  8. November 21, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Hi Grace, and thanks for your comment. I’d agree that adolescents are generally more likely to push the boundaries (both social and linguistic) than at other life stages and that parental pressure to ‘talk proper’ might encourage such speakers to rebel against those kinds of norms.

    But I’d caution against a viewpoint which says that ‘isn’t it’ is ‘correct’ English and ‘innit’ is somehow wrong or deviant. It’s simply non-standard usage, and although a prescriptivist would say ‘well that’s wrong’, a descriptivist (that is someone who describes language use rather than someone who prescribes how language is used) wouldn’t use this kind of value label.

    Language is constantly in a state of flux and change and the language of younger speakers always seems to be devalued more than the language of older speakers. For example, when the word ‘cool’ came into English (in addition to other slang words), it was similarly stigmatised as a young speakers’ term, but it is now an accepted part of the English lexicon.

    Whether the younger speakers will grow up and be embarrassed by the way they spoke is up for debate, but since it’s part of who they are, I wouldn’t be so confident that they would be!

  9. November 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Teenagers will always push the boundaries and using slang words and other words which are not classed as ‘proper’ are always the way. Each generation will have had their own words which were ‘cool’ back in the day.

  10. November 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    There is nothing wrong with teens playing up when it comes to words, it is when they have a huge chip on their shoulder at the same time that it bothers me. Attitude and ridiculous words are not a good mix.

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