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When is an article not an article? When it gets rejected three times…

November 30, 2011 2 comments

First off, apologies for not posting yesterday. I had an attack of a particularly virulent stomach bug that laid me low all day and it was all I could do to lie in bed in a pathetic, shivering, sweaty, stomach-cramping heap. The bedroom and bathroom have now been declared official biohazard zones and I’ve order one of those biohazard suits (you know, the kind the scientists wear in ET) for Rebecca for Christmas, just in case the bug strikes again. I suspect I picked it up over the weekend when Rebecca and I were doing our weekly galavant across the country visiting friends. The people we were visiting (an old work friend Rebecca hadn’t seen in about two years and Rebecca’s brother and his wife) have young kids (all under three), and as such, they have very little understanding of appropriate hygienic behaviour (the kids, not the parents). After spending two days with them coughing, sneezing, spluttering, snottering and generally being all kid-like, I can’t say that I was surprised by the full-frontal assault on my immune system… It seems to have abated now and 40 hours later, I’m able to eat a little bit of toast and some crumpet. So much for my big strike action…

Anyway, moving onto matters more mundane.

A few months ago, you might remember that I was really excited about a paper I was writing on ‘co-opetition‘ (or co-operative competition). I managed to finish it and I submitted it to my first choice journal, Language in Society. Unfortunately, it got rejected because it didn’t fit in with the aims of the journal and was too specific a focus for a journal that was supposed to be about more general issues of, well, language in society. ‘Ok, not a problem’ thought I, ‘I’ll just submit it to another journal’, and so it got sent to Narrative Inquiry. ‘Nay’ said Narrative Inquiry (well, more precisely, Michael Bamberg), ‘it does not fit. Why not submit it to a language and gender journal?’.

After two beat-downs, I was getting quite annoyed by the failure of this paper to get any sort of reception, but I doggedly carried on with it and sent it to Gender and Language, thinking that it would at least get a look in. Alas, at the beginning of November, I got a decision from the editor that said, unsurprisingly, ‘rejected’. But it wasn’t even as though it was a close run thing. In fact, it was unanimously rejected by both reviewers and the editor, all of whom said that there was nothing new in my article to warrant publication. Instead, I was treading ground which had been trod about 20 years ago and the reviewers didn’t think that there was anything innovative or interesting enough in my analysis. A little bit more than disappointed, I managed to force myself to read the reviewers comments, and was surprised to see that it wasn’t the massacring that I expected. The general observation that it was well-written and contained some nice data, but that the focus was all wrong and concentrating on speech style wasn’t appropriate given the amount of work that had been done on this over the past 20 years or so. Instead, they advised me to abandon the idea of ‘co-opetitive’ and concentrate on the discursive construction of masculinity in my data.

Now, what’s really annoying about this is that THIS WAS ALREADY IN THE ARTICLE. But what I hadn’t done was recognise the potential for developing the paper along these lines and build the story of the article around this idea. My blind loyalty to the original idea and analysis meant that I was wholly unwilling to abandon it. Looking back on it, I think that deep down, I knew the idea of ‘co-opetitive’ was wrong. When I read through the article, I kept thinking to myself – ‘I’m pushing this reading of the data too much. How convincing is my analysis? Would someone reading this be convinced by my argument?’ I now know that if I was doing that, it was a good sign that the argument wasn’t especially robust. But when you spend so much time and effort on developing an idea, it’s hard to reject it outright.

To be fair, the first two journals I submitted it to didn’t give me any feedback besides ‘it doesn’t fit’, and Gender and Language was the first article to send it to reviewers. And the feedback from the reviewers has helped me write a brand-new article which I’m actually happy with and I’m not sitting thinking ‘is this analysis convincing?’ (it’s also a case where peer-review shows its strengths in terms of academic development). For me, the lesson I’ve learnt (in very much a The Wonder Years kind of way) is that it’s not a bad thing to recognise (and more importantly, accept) a failure of an idea and be willing to abandon it.

The Social Linguist

Categories: Research, Writing Tags: , ,

Dr Robert Lawson: Language Expert (allegedly)

November 26, 2011 2 comments

I’m not quite sure why, but earlier on in the week I was asked to write up a short analysis of a letter a 16 year old young offender had written to the victim of his crime (below) for a piece in The Sun. It might have been because they reported on my Glasgow research earlier on in the year, but I didn’t ask, so don’t know for certain. Anyway, here’s the letter.

Instead of a heartfelt apology (which was the main purpose of the exercise), the author of the letter took it upon himself to educate his victim as to why they were robbed. What was particularly noticeable about the letter was that it was basically devoid of any culpability or responsibility on the part of the offender, and the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the victim. I had quite a short deadline to turn my comments around (I was asked at about 4:30pm on Wednesday, and they wanted about 300 words by 6pm), and I’ve attached my analysis below (which ended up being around 500 words).

“The letter opens with an unusual mode of address; dear victim. By not using the addressees’ name, the author of the letter immediately dehumanises the person affected by the burglary, something which suggests a lack of empathy by the writer. Moreover, the letter is not a sign of contrition or apology. Instead, he uses the opportunity to put responsibility for the burglary on the victim. By calling the victim ‘dumb’ and ‘thick’, we’re under no illusion as to where blame is directed. The subtext here is that it was the victim’s own actions which led to the burglary happening. By running the addressee through their ‘dumb mistakes’ (they didn’t close their curtains, they didn’t close the kitchen window, and they live in a ‘high-risk’ area), he attempts to justify his actions and mitigate his responsibility. Such ‘techniques of neutralisation’ are common among people who commit criminal acts.

In terms of writing standards, the letter displays a number of basic errors of grammar, punctuation, capitalisation and sentence structure. Although the author of the letter is 16 years old, it would be unexpected for someone at GCSE level to make so many errors. For example, he mis-spells words like ‘basicly’ (basically), ‘dont no’ (don’t know) and ‘sympath and remores’ (sympathy and remorse), but he spells more complex words like ‘burglary’ and ‘bothered’ correctly. He also doesn’t appear to know how to use contracted forms properly (‘wouldnt’, ‘your’ and ‘dont’ are just some examples). But what’s interesting is that he sometimes does use the correct form. For example, he writes ‘Iam writing’ and ‘Im not going to show’ (both incorrect), but he also writes ‘I’m going to run you through the dumb mistakes you made’ (correct). This suggests that he at least has a very general idea of the correct form, but doesn’t do so consistently. It terms of capitalisation, it’s really difficult with such a short letter to come to any definitive conclusions why almost all instances of <w> and <s> are capitalised. The randomness of it could suggest that he doesn’t know how to apply the rules of capitalisation properly, but it could also be an example of his own stylistic quirk.

While the contents of the letter demonstrate a clear lack of remorse, the author has come to the conclusion that he isn’t to blame for what happened. Instead, he suggests that responsibility lies squarely with the homeowner. But while it’s easy to focus on how poorly written the letter is, this should only form part of the analysis. We have to look beyond the form of the letter and examine its message, and that message is a rejection of culpability and a lack of empathy with the victim. And it is this which is perhaps the most worrying part”.

There was a bunch of things I didn’t have space to talk about, including how this letter will likely be taken by the right wing as some sort of indication of the failure of education and the moral turpitude of young people today (because good people don’t write badly). But really, would it be alright if the letter had been written in Standard English, with no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors? Would it have been more acceptable, or would we have spilled the same kind of vitriol I’ve been reading in various comment pages on the internet about what should be done to the author? I tried to get people to focus on the message of the letter rather than the form, but how far people will take notice of it is debatable.

Oh, and for those interested in seeing what happens when an article goes through various edits and sub-edits? The final version as printed in the paper is below… Incidentally, I’m really embarrassed about the ‘language expert’ by-line… That wasn’t my idea. Honest.

The Social Linguist

Just how offensive are ‘comedy’ accents?

November 19, 2011 11 comments

Last Saturday night, me and Rebecca had a friend over for dinner, and after a few G&Ts (for me), the conversation turned to different accents and attitudes towards people from other places. Living in England (or America) meant that my accent stood out, even though I speak (for the most part) Standard Scottish English and didn’t really think that my accent was that marked, and I’ve had more than my fair share of ‘oh that’s a funny way of saying that! Can you say it again?’. This typically proceeds anything I say that contains a trilled /r/ or some other rhotic ‘quirk’ that Scottish English speakers have. For a long time, I thought it was just something that happened to people who had a different variety of English from the dominant variety in the place the speaker was living

It got really bad when I was living in America where one guy that I knew, no matter what I said to him, would always start talking in this ‘mock Scottish’ accent. I’m a pretty laid back guy most of the time, but it got to the point where I thought that this guy was just taking this piss and dressing it up as ‘banter’. Maybe me being Scottish (and he apparently had Scottish ancestry) meant that he felt it was ok to perform ‘mock Scottish’ right in front of me. After all, how racist can it be to imitate someone’s accent when he’s white and the person that’s doing the imitation is white as well?

Perhaps because I’m a white, male native English speaker somehow means I’m a ‘legitimate’ target for these kinds of mock performances? Would the same happen if I was black, or Asian, or Maori or otherwise non-white? How far does skin colour determine when it is and isn’t ok to perform ‘mock accents’ (and what other issues are important?)? Would this guy have done this if I was Russian or Polish or Spanish or French (as a disclaimer, I realise I’m conflating race with nationality here and I know how problematic that is…)? My feeling is that he wouldn’t have.

Anyway, what was really surprising was that only a few days ago, an article appeared on the BBC website about David Cameron’s attempt to do an Australian accent as part of a recent speech. The article questioned whether it was ever ok to do a comedy accent, and how far doing a comedy accent might be a form of covert racism (this is the basis of Jane Hill’s discussion of ‘mock Spanish‘, perhaps best seen in The Terminator where John Connor says ‘hasta la vista’). One of the commentators in the article, Sean Ruttledge, argued that ‘the lay person has to be careful what accents they do. Imitating certain accents gives the perception that someone is simply being racist’. But I think that racism is only part of the issue here (albeit a very significant issue). The other issue is that it’s simply to do with respect. Mocking someone’s accent and thus making them a target of humour and ridicule suggests that the person doing the accent feels like that person is a legitimate target for their humour. Given how closely we guard our accent or dialect, mocking it could be (and quite often is) viewed as an attack on who we are and where we’re from.

The question is, then, when people are not being racist or offensive, why do they do it?

A big part of it, I realised after my dinner conversation with Rebecca and my friend, is that it comes from a place of friendliness and affection. This was quite surprising to me because I had typically associated this kind of thing with ‘friendly piss-taking’ but not ‘I feel like I know you well enough to do this’. The other thing is that sometimes people like certain accents and enjoy listening to it, and imitation here is a form of flattery. This was certainly the case for Rebecca and again, I was quite surprised about that since I don’t think that the Scottish accent is anything to write home about.

Perhaps the biggest thing then is that it’s the relationships between the people engaged in these performances which determines how the performances should be read. Or maybe the safest thing for everyone is that no-one imitates any accents, then no-one can ever be offended by someone else trying to put an accent on. Or maybe I’m just over-thinking this…

The Social Linguist

BBC News – Say what? iPhone has problems with Scots accents


The new iPhone 4S came out a few weeks ago to a relatively muted reception, primarily because it wasn’t the massive technological leap ahead that most people has expected (or hoped for). Nevertheless, one much vaunted tool was the new software ‘Siri‘, a natural language processing programme which is able to do everything from noting your reminders to showing you where the nearest cash point is to searching the internet, simply through you talking directly to it. Now, natural language processing is kind of viewed as the holy grail of search engines, primarily because when we want to find something, we don’t think in terms of key-words but rather coherent sentences. Ask Jeeves was probably one of the more successful attempts at integrating NLP processes as part of its search optimisation, but it wasn’t able to knock Google off its perch as the de facto search engine. This is because one of the major difficulties in developing intelligent NLP software in search engines is that it has to be able to deal with a variety of inputs. For instances, if I wanted to find out how to make homebew, it could be phrased in a number of different ways ‘How to make homebrew’, ‘How do I make homebrew?’, ‘What do I need to start homebrewing’, and so on. Google, on the other hand, doesn’t use NLP but keyword searches. So, for the previous example, Google would trawl its indexed webpages looking for instances of ‘homebrew’, ‘starting’ and so on, and pages which had more of these keywords would appear higher up the search rank. Now, this works fine for simple searches, but you enter a question into Google and it starts to struggle, outputting quit useless pages which aren’t really relevant to your query (I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I know it’s happened a bunch of times to me…).

When we get to voice activated NLP, we get into even more difficulty. Not only does the software have to deal with different forms of input in terms of lexical items and grammatical structure, but it also has to deal with variability of accent and dialect. For example, it has to be able to identify the fact that /bʌtəɹ/ and /bʌʔəɹ/ are the same word (butter), even though it’s pronounced slightly differently. Again, that’s only a simple example, but when we think of the variability of phonological structure between different varieties, the software has to be powerful enough to store these different varieties and recognise them when they’re input into the system. Take into account differences of age, sex, class and so on, what Siri can do gets ever more impressive. That is, until it tries to deal with Scots.

Now, obviously there are a number of stereotypes about Scottish speakers and how difficult they are to understand (when I play clips of Scottish English speakers to my students, there is often a stunned silence in the room as they try to decipher whether the speaker is asking for the time or threatening to chib someone…). And it seems that Siri is similarly affected (for the most part) in trying to deal with Scottish accents (BBC News – Say what? iPhone has problems with Scots accents). I can’t say that this is entirely unsurprising given the amount of trouble I have with voice recognition technology. You know, the kind that’s used in telephone banking, cinema booking lines and car insurance call centres… Quite why the technology hasn’t caught up with understanding Scots is a bit of a mystery to me, especially since it should technically be the same kinds of processes of programming the software as would be followed for Souther Standard British English or General American. I mean, I get that Scotland is a small country in the grand scheme of things, but it’s kind of difficult to ignore a potential market of 6 million speakers.

But I suppose that so long as we’re not lumbered with voice activated lifts, we’ll be alright…

Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (and why John Locke is wrong)… (part 3)

November 12, 2011 3 comments

This post is the last installment of my review of John Locke’s recent book Duels and Duets (if you want to catch up on part 1 and part 2)

Before the book even gets into its stride, Locke has already made his mind up about his subject matter: men and women do talk differently. It’s something which isn’t up for debate, and its intellectual veracity is established by the fact ‘we hear [men and women] conversing and may have witnessed failures to connect – or experienced these difficulties in our own relationships’ (Locke 2011: 1). Of course, observation is certainly part of any scientific endeavour, but the part which is (crucially) missing is analysis. Locke starts from the perspective that differences exist because he’s heard men and women talk, but this is purely circumstantial evidence and doesn’t fulfil the rigorous demands set up by sociolinguistic researchers who investigate male and female speech. Moreover, he is very selective of the work he chooses to support his case, ignoring research that, for example, argues that women can be competitive in conversation (Eckert 1993, Guendouzi 2001), or that men can be co-operative and ‘gossip’ (Cameron 1997). He also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual linguistic evidence, preferring instead to let work from other fields form much of his discussion.

For example, Locke draws much of his argument via research conducted in the field of primatology. The idea is that with primates being our closest evolutionary partner, analysis of how apes and chimpanzees behave should offer us more of an insight into how humans behave. With no ‘culture’ to speak of, then any differences between male and female primate behaviour can only arise from biology. This is taken as an evidence of undercutting the impact of culture within human societies: if primates don’t have culture and they behave in this way, then surely the same must apply to humans since they’re our closest neighbour on the evolutionary ladder? Of course, the fact is that humans do have culture and we have a history of culturally-mandated (not biologically-determined) systems of oppression and exclusion (for example, in 1878 the University of London was one of the first universities to allow women were allowed to attend, but the University of Cambridge did not award degrees to female students until 1948). To argue that these systems of exclusion are based on biology is folly at best and wilful ignorance at worst, but that’s exactly what Locke does when he argues that the reason there are more male debaters, politicians and public speakers is because men are genetically and biologically predisposed to duelling-type behaviour which characterises these arenas. Women, on the other hand, do not participate in these kinds of activities because they are more biologically predisposed towards co-operative and facilitative communicative behaviour (re: duetting). Locke argues that such realities have nothing to do with the historical processes of exclusion and marginalisation (cf. cultural issues) of women from these activities, but that it’s all to do with biology.

Lastly, Locke has a particularly homogenous view of men and women (and completely ignores individuals who might not fit into this neat categorisation). All men and women are (more or less) the same, so issues of race, sexuality, age, ethnicity, nationality and so on, don’t impact on linguistic behaviour (they do, but Locke ignores much of the research on such issues). Why should they when human society is derived from the same basic prehistoric blueprint? Ignoring these issues overlooks a whole host of factors which impact on speech behaviour, and as such is a major drawback of Locke’s work.

Duels and Duets has certainly stirred up a not insignificant amount of attention within the media, the general public and the academy, but I would argue that Locke’s conclusions are based on flawed logic and questionable data and is almost wholly ignorant of current theoretical advances in language and gender research. Because his arguments are couched within the science of evolutionary biology, however, many will assume his work to have the intellectual rigour and academic standards which typifies such ‘hard’ sciences. Locke’s work falls short when evaluated against the standards set by linguistics and gender studies and as such cannot be taken seriously as a proper description regarding the basis of male and female speech styles.

Now, this obviously isn’t a comprehensive treatment of Locke’s book, and it would take another book to offer a full critique of his work, but I hope that these last three posts at least offer some background information on how Duels and Duets fits into sociolinguistic research on language and gender, and why we need to be very cautious when a book like this appears on the market.

– The Social Linguist

Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (Part 2)

November 8, 2011 3 comments

Having outlined the theoretical background to language and gender research within sociolinguistics, we can now bring the discussion back to Locke. As I mentioned earlier, Locke’s position is that our communicative behaviour can be irreducibly brought back to biology. This means that we are slaves to biological influences and have little say in the outward expressions of such deep-rooted evolutionary imperatives. Biologism is an approach which argues that the reason men and women talk differently isn’t because of cultural differences (as argued in the dynamic approach above), but rather because of biological differences. The different evolutionary paths taken by our prehistoric ancestors means that the differences are hard-wired and find eventual expression in our modern communicative behaviour. These hard-wired cognitive frameworks are why men argue, debate, compete, show-off and duel, while women co-operate, gossip, chatter, and duet.

Part of the appeal of biologism is that it appears to be based in ‘science’, and science (especially of the evolutionary kind) is often viewed as something more objective and real than the ‘soft’ sciences of the humanities. In particular, modern western society (promulgated in part by the media) is more inclined towards accepting as truth work based on the fields like evolutionary biology than work from (the relatively unknown) fields of linguistics and gender studies. Locke’s research also appeals to the societal tendency to accept findings which appear to support that differences between men and women exist, whether language-based practices or other kinds of behaviour (for example, that men are supposedly better at map reading or women are better at multi-tasking). We have a peculiar affinity with work which supports what we already take as self-evident: that men and women are different. And we’re much more likely to accept this kind of work than work which says there are more similarities between men and women than differences, and work in sociolinguistics has shown that the linguistic behaviour of men and women is far more similar than it is different.

But the problem with the biologism perspective is that it implicitly (and in older accounts, explicitly) attempts to naturalise the superiority of men and the subordination of women. If behaviour can be explained by evolution, then the fact that males are socially dominant in modern day society is something that can’t be challenged: it is the way it is. This account means that the status quo of male/female relations in contemporary society (partly mediated through speech) is natural and accepted, and for people working within language and gender studies, this is a significant issue which can’t be overlooked. Power is a significant part of modern gender relations, and any attempt to naturalise male dominance and female subordination, even under the guise of scientific biologism, needs to be challenged. We get into very dangerous territory when we go down the path of accepting that inequality between the genders as a scientific finding (as Locke does). If we replaced ‘sex’ with ‘race’ and were reading a book about how the communicative (or other behavioural) differences between whites and blacks were based on their different evolutionary paths, there would be an uproar (and quite rightly so). Quite why discussions of sex do not engender the same kind of response is a mystery.

Stay tuned for Part 3 on Saturday!

The Social Linguist

Some comments on Duels and Duets (Part 1)

November 5, 2011 2 comments

A few weeks ago, I made a blog post about John Locke’s new book Duels and Duets, a book which apparently explains why men and women have such different conversational styles. I think that it’s fair to say that the book has provoked a reasonable amount of controversy within the sociolinguistics community, and now that I’ve read the book, I’m in a better position to offer a more nuanced critique of Locke’s work.

For those of you unfamiliar with Duels and Duets, the central premise of Professor Locke’s book is that men and women have contrasting communicative styles due to the ‘differing roles played by the sexes in evolutionary history, the effects of which were transmitted genetically to the modern human brain, which continue to influence our behaviour today’ (Locke 2011: 13, italics in original). From this perspective of biologism, Locke argues that men’s biological disposition towards competition for status and power manifests itself in speech behaviour he terms duelling, while women’s biological disposition towards co-operation and community manifests itself in speech behaviour he terms duetting. Drawing primarily on evidence from case studies in anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and primatology, Locke attempts to deconstruct the differences between male and female speech behaviour down to its essence: biology.

There are, however, numerous shortcomings in Locke’s account which I will attempt to outline here. It is necessary, firstly, to illustrate how Locke’s argument differs from more widely accepted theories on gender and language differences.

The beginnings of language and gender research can be traced back to 1975 with the publication of Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place (there are other, earlier, treatments of women’s language, most notably in Otto Jespersen’s chapter ‘The Woman’, in his 1922 volume Language: Its Nature and Development). The main theoretical view at this time was that women’s speech was deficient, although it was only ‘deficient’ insofar that it was being compared to the ‘standard’ of men’s speech. For example, Lakoff argued that women used more hedges (phrases like I think and sort of) because of their relatively powerless status in society at that time. Men, in contrast, did not have to hedge their statements in the same way because they were powerful. So men were viewed as the de facto standard against which women’s speech was evaluated and judged. Lakoff, however, did not base her analysis on any empirical data, but rather on her own intuition and introspection. This led to a raft of studies which adopted a more quantitative approach in order to test Lakoff’s claims that women’s speech and men’s speech was different.

The work which came out of this paradigm not only provided an account of men’s and women’s speech based on data, but it also challenged some of the dominant views of how men and women conversed. For example, Lakoff argued that women used more tag questions (in a sentence like, It’s really hot in here, isn’t it?), but in subsequent studies, such as Dubois and Crouch (1975) and Holmes (1985, also reported in Holmes 1995), researchers found that men used more tag questions. It is important to note, however, that tag questions are not all one and the same, and their functions range from being facilitative (“Nice run, wasn’t it?”), softening (“That’s a bit silly, isn’t it?”) or challenging (“You won’t do that again, will you?”). While the general perception of tag questions is that they’re a marker of doubt and uncertainty, the reality is much more complex.

The view of women’s speech as deficient came under fire from certain researchers who argued that rather than women being deficient, language was actively used by men to maintain their hegemonic position at the top of the social hierarchy (this characterises work by, for example, Dale Spender). This was known as the dominance approach where ‘women as well as men [colluded] in sustaining and perpetuating male dominance and female oppression’ (Coates 2004: 6), and more recently, two approaches have found purchase within language and gender research: the difference approach and the dynamic approach (these terms are from Coates 2004). The difference approach refers to the idea that men and women are socialised within different cultures which consequently leads to different patterns of speech behaviour. It is this approach which attempts to explain male and female ‘miscommunication’, as argued in work by Deborah Tannen and extensively challenged in Deborah Cameron’s book The Myth of Mars and Venus.

The last approach, the dynamic approach, is perhaps the most common approach within current sociolinguistic research (that is, the study of language in society). In this paradigm, gender (the sociocultural expression of biological sex) is something that people do rather than something that people have. In this way, gender is something dynamic, changing and malleable; it is something that we do every time we speak. In this sense, gender is cultural, and the differences between men and women’s speech is conditioned by cultural expectations about what it is to speak like a man and speak like a woman. One benefit of the dynamic approach is that it allows us to examine speakers in context, rather than as a homogenous group of ‘men’ or ‘women’ or ‘other’ (this is also helpful because there are people for whom the cultural designations of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ do not apply).

Locke, however, doesn’t adopt any of these positions, and instead adopts a ‘biologism’ approach to language and gender.

I wanted to take the time to outline the (partial) history of language and gender research because I think it’s important to outline the prevailing trends within current sociolinguistic research on male and female speech so we can better contexualise why Locke’s position is untenable. On Tuesday, I’ll discuss the failings of the book in more detail (so you’ll have a reason to come back!).

– The Social Linguist