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Archive for February, 2012

The mid-semester rush


Ugh, it’s that time of the semester where everything starts rushing at you head on with the intensity of a thousand suns… We’re currently in reading week right now (Week 6), so no teaching, but that doesn’t mean no work. On Friday, I’m giving a talk at the University of Birmingham on the role of social media in sociolinguistic reporting, then I’m giving another talk at University of Lancaster on the discursive construction of masculinity two weeks later, and then I’ve got a chapter deadline for the end of March. Add in assessment deadlines looming for the three undergraduate modules I teach, a bunch of analysis for the Mock the Week project I’m working on with a colleague, four conference papers to write, my younger brother’s wedding in May, and a bunch of other stuff I have to do, things are getting a little bit too manic for my tastes…

So with that in mind, I’ll leave you with a really interesting blog-post here on Martin Laird who has had a good run of form during the World Golf Championships. If I can find time over the next few weeks, I’ll put some thoughts down his accent change, cause there’s an awful lot going on there. That’s a big ‘if’.

Anyway, back to it I suppose. So, where’s that grindstone?

– The Social Linguist

Filler words: The enemy of eloquence?

February 21, 2012 2 comments

Twitter is awesome for all sorts of random stuff, and sometimes it’s especially useful for flagging up things that make me go ‘wut?’ as a sociolinguist. The most recent one which raised my eye-brow was this gem from the Star Tribune about fillers (Language Log have talked about fillers here and here if you’re interested). The article opens with the cracking line ‘If Martin Luther King had said, “Um, I, like, have a dream,” where, like, would we be?’. Overlooking the fact that Luther King was reading from a script, as a practiced speaker, in front of a international televised audience, most people in Luther King’s position wouldn’t revert to using fillers, especially since they’re not a feature of formal speech styles. What the writer does is take naturalistic speech phenomena (and the features therein) and applies them to a completely different domain and tenor. Not good sociolinguistic practice.

But the narrative that fillers are indicative of a lack of eloquence and sophistication in speech is made clear, and it’s something the writer doesn’t let up on throughout the piece. In fact, the author takes this idea and rams it down the reader’s throat with such zeal it’s almost scary… It gets even better as the article unfolds, with various unsubstantiated points like:

  • Filler words are destroying the English language.
  • [English] contains, arguably, more expressive words than any other language.
  • Filler words have turned into a crutch crippling the development of vocabulary.

It’s still not clear to me how innovations can destroy a language or how fillers can retrograde vocabulary development, nor is there a case that English is more or less expressive than any other language (seriously, where do people get these ideas from?), and it’s worrying that these kinds of ideologies are still broadcast so vigorously.

The last point the writer makes is that ‘The first step to terminate this gruesome habit is to recognize when you use filler words. Instead of allowing these words to dominate your speech, simply pause to collect your thoughts. ‘. If we did that, we would never get anything said…

The Social Linguist

Birmingham Market: Unconventional product placement

February 18, 2012 2 comments

Every Saturday for about the past 18 months, Rebecca and I have been going down to Birmingham market to stock up on our weekly quota of fruit, vegetables and meat. It’s some of the best quality food I’ve bought in Birmingham, it’s cheap as chips, and it supports the local economy. Ultimately, it’s pretty much a win/win situation for everyone involved. The market is also one of the busiest places in Birmingham in terms of food shopping (I’m not including food shopping in Selfridges. That’s not shopping. It’s posing). As a result, the place is alive with languages from all corners of the globe, and the food on offer is similarly exotic. As you can imagine, it’s a brilliant place to people watch, but it’s also a place where a sociolinguist can have a field day listening to all manner of interesting linguistic phenomena, from politeness theory to code-mixing to non-standard Englishes and everything in-between.

Sometimes, though, there are things that catch the ear (or in this case, the eye) more than most, and last week, I came across perhaps the single most oddest item I’ve ever seen on sale in the market.

For when the family gets too much...

This sign was snapped at one of the stands which sells assorted nuts, but I have absolutely no idea what on earth this could be, especially if it’s some sort of incorrect translation of something else? Perhaps something akin to ‘keep your family happy nuts’? Or maybe ‘keep your family quiet with nuts’? Seriously, family tranquilizers? Whatever next, ‘spouse amphetamines’?

The Social Linguist

Sociolinguistics in Scotland: Coming to a bookstore near you!

February 14, 2012 4 comments

Last year, I had a great idea of doing an edited volume on sociolinguistic research in Scotland. This idea came to me while I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, and my brain wouldn’t let me, so I started thinking about research (as you do when you’re an insomniac academic…). Anyway, I realised that it had been a long time since there had been a volume dedicated to research in Scottish speech communities, the last one being The Edinburgh Companion to Scots (2003). This volume was more of an introductory text to Scots and Scottish Standard English, and didn’t really look at sociolinguistic work in much detail.

But since 2003, the field of sociolinguistics in Scotland has come a long way, with researchers working on some really important and ground-breaking work, and I thought that it was a shame that none of this work had been collated in an edited volume. “Aha!” thought I, “I’ll do an edited volume on all the recent sociolinguistic work in Scotland and it’ll be amazing!” So, I started putting together the proposal, thinking about contributors, possible chapter contents, readership, competition, aims and objectives, etc etc etc.

Now writing a book proposal (whether monograph or edited) is a daunting task, because it’s up to you how the book looks, and there’s a lot that you need to include. As my first task, I had to decide who I wanted to be involved in the project and what kind of stuff they would write. You can send out a call for papers, but because the field of Scottish sociolinguistics is relatively small, I decided it would be better just to ask people I knew. Because of this, in order to avoid overlap, I had to decide roughly what the focus of each chapter would be and then get the people to write towards this content.

Once you’ve done this, you then need to get people to submit detailed abstracts of their chapters, along with references, and edit these so they’re all the same style. While this is all happening, you’ve still got to go ahead and work on the proposal. What are the aims of the book? What contribution will the book have to the field? What’s the justification that this book is needed? Who’s going to read it? More importantly, who’s going to buy it? Where will it sell? What other books is in competition with? Who’s contributing? Who are they? What have they done in the past? And so on and so on… My proposal ended up being about 10 pages long, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t much, but once you add in the abstracts for 16 chapters, it starts to become a relatively large undertaking. Publishers usually give you guidelines on what to include in the proposal, and each publisher’s format is slightly different, so you need to make sure you follow it as closely as you can.

Once I felt reasonably comfortable about the package, I submitted the proposal to EUP in April last year. But unfortunately, this is where I made my first mistake. Sometimes, I lack the strength of my convictions, so rather than spend ages and ages collecting abstracts only to find out that the publisher wasn’t interested in the project, I simply included very short abstracts (about 50 words) on what each chapter would cover, along with the main proposal, in order to speed things up and get to a decision quicker. Unsurprisingly, when it went to the reviewers, they both said ‘we need more detail on the content’. This came back to me and since things were looking quite positive, I asked the contributors to submit a detailed abstract which I would then forward to EUP. This took about three months or so to get all of these collated, and then another month or so for the reviewers to go through them again. This was alongside my comments to each of the reviewers’ points, which also took a while to put together.

Things were looking quite good, but then it all started to unravel. I was asked if I would consider removing a few of the chapters because the editorial committee had reservations about them. I suggested that I give this feedback to the authors and ask them to address the issues raised, which was accepted. A month or so later, I submitted the new abstracts which were put in front of the editorial committee, only to be told that EUP wouldn’t be able to take the project forward due to issues with the proposed structure of the volume.

I was (rather understandably, I think) quite shocked by this decision, especially since things had been looking so positive. There were a few e-mails back and forth about whether anything could be done to change their minds, but alas, that door was closed and I had to make a decision: try someone else or give up?

As a tenacious Scotsman, I decided to go again, and I submitted it to Routledge. Thankfully, Routledge were on the ball and gave me a decision within a week: no. Dammit.

Right then, attempt number three, but not before some soul searching. Is this a good idea? How can I convince someone it’s a good idea? What is it missing? Am I just not hitting the right points? Should I get a job in Sainsburys? You get the idea.

But the fire in my mind that this was an idea worth pursuing was too strong, and I decide to put myself through it one last time. Enter Palgrave Macmillan.

I looked through the Palgrave website and found out that woop, they have a series in minority languages and communities. Wait, Scots is a minority language! Oh, and so is Gaelic! Wow, we’re onto a winner here! I look through their instructions and of course, it’s a whole new document to fill out. I dutifully go through it point by point, refining my thinking here and there, trying to think about a wider readership, go through it with a fine toothcomb and submit the proposal along with the detailed abstracts. By now, we’re in December 2011, almost 10 months after I first had the idea…

Palgrave are quick to respond and they’ll let me know how it goes, but at the moment, the commissioning editor is on holiday and it’ll be a while until she’s back. How dare people take holiday time during Christmas!! In January, I get an e-mail asking for reviewers and they’re going to consider it. Right, we’re getting somewhere now.

February, I get an e-mail saying that the reviewers have looked at it and that they’d like me to respond to their comments. The reviews are detailed, meticulous, and very helpful, and I take into account the majority of the recommendations in my response. I then send my comments back to the commissioning editor and wait for the inevitable ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

And now, to the point of this entry…

A week ago yesterday, I received an e-mail from Palgrave saying that they really liked the book and they want to publish it! Huzzah! And yesterday, I received my contract from them, so now, THE BOOK IS ON! It should be finished by March 2013 and hopefully be coming out towards the end of the year, so it’s all very exciting now.

Although it’s been a long, hard, sometimes painful slog which has made me really quite down sometimes, I’m very glad that I stuck with it (if only for validation that it actually was a good idea in the first place!). Rejections can be very difficult to deal with in any situation, and they can certainly make you wonder if you’re in the right job. As an academic, a big part of my job is to get published, and when that doesn’t seem to be going right, it’s hard to pick yourself up and keep on going, but it is, unfortunately, exactly what we have to do. It’s worth it in the long run.

– The Social Linguist

The flyting of Blizzard and Grist

February 11, 2012 1 comment

Occasionally, you’ll come across a piece of internet gold which hasn’t gone completely viral yet and is still unknown to a lot of people (although, with a million views, ‘unknown’ is all relative). A few days ago, I came across one such piece of gold that made me remember why the internet can be such a wonderful place (caution: contains incredibly strong language and taboo themes!).

The video in question is a rap performance between two guys known as Blizzard and Grist, with the central theme of the performance being a battle between the ‘teacher’ and the ‘student’ (Blizzard isn’t actually Grist’s student, but it’s so well done that you’d be forgiven for thinking so). What’s great about the piece, though, is that the two performers are British, rather than American. The rhymes and cultural references that get flung about are distinctly UK in orientation (I particularly like Blizzard evoking OFSTED towards the end of one of the rounds), and there’s a definite sense that they’re not trying to be American, even though rap battles are very much associated with American rap.

There’s lots and lots that can be said about the performance, from accent features to cultural tropes, from performances of masculinity to the use of taboo language (there’s a good commentary on the performance here if you don’t want to/can’t watch the video). But crazily enough, what Grist and Blizzard are doing is not new. Neither are any of the very similar concepts they draw inspiration from, including American rap battles, ‘clowning‘ or ‘playing the dozens. In fact, these can all be traced back to a historical ritual known as ‘flyting‘.

As the link points out, flyting is an exchange between two participants where the main idea is to insult your opponent in the most poetic, colourful, intelligent and sophisticated way possible. It’s not enough to just throw insults at one another, but these insults have to be carefully crafted and thought out. Flyting is an art form. Through flyting, the participants (usually male) were able to demonstrate their intellectual prowess, quick thinking, wit and humour, with the aim being to defeat the opponent through a series of biting insults. The benefit of this was that disagreements between people could be settled without violence, maintaining at least some semblance of social order. The person that was defeated was beaten only in spirit, rather than being killed or seriously injured as might happen with other kinds of contests. So flyting was an important tool in the history of society.

Perhaps one of the best known examples of the form is The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, a brilliant poem written in Middle Scots by the Makar William Dunbar. The poem is basically a series of insults between Dunbar and Kennedie, based on an argument of ‘I’m better than you’. The poem itself is a  compilation of some of the most disgusting, taboo-riddled, poisonous insults ever found in literature. And it is wonderful. And hilarious. And clever. And inventive. And brilliant. But due to the fact that I’m not prepared to share with you some of the best insults in it (due to the fact that they are truly awful), you’ll have to read it yourself.

Essentially, the battle between Grist and Blizzard isn’t a million miles away from the battle between Dunbar and Kennedie. and it demonstrates just how resonant certain poetic forms are throughout the ages. That traditional poetic forms are reinterpreted and reformed with each new generation shows just how resilient good ideas are to the vagaries of time.

The Social Linguist

Being on the radio: Some comments


Last week, I was invited along to talk about pet names and terms of endearment on the Fred Macaulay show, and given that it was my third or fourth time on the radio, I felt that I was a bit better able to reflect on the whole process, rather than skating by the seat of my pants with no idea about what to expect. This was also the first time that I was actually invited into the studio instead of doing it over the phone, so that was a new experience (even though the mic and headset were broken and I ended up having to do it over the phone anyway), and I thought it might be useful to go over some of the things that I’ve learned now that I’m an old hand at media work (/joke).

1. Do your preparation

The first thing that you want to make sure about is that you know what you’re talking about and that you have a few ‘quick facts’ that you can drop into the conversation in case you run out of things to say. Hosts are generally quite sensitive to a guest running out of chat and have a list of questions ready to prompt you (dead air is something radio stations avoid like the plague), so if you do tail off, you can expect that the host will swoop in and save you with an open-ended question, but the more you can make your contribution stand alone, the better. It helps if you have a list of bulleted points that you expect might come up over the course of the segment, but have them spread out in front of you so you don’t make a rustle noise as you flick through your notepad. This was relatively easy for me because I was in the studio by myself, so I didn’t have to worry about messing up someone else’s desk.

2. You don’t need to do as much preparation as you expect

I spent about two hours or so for last week’s programme reading up on etymologies, historical attestations, geographical distributions, politeness strategies and all sorts of issues related to pet name usages. Unfortunately, most of it was stuff I ended up not using at all. But thankfully, the preparation wasn’t wasted since it was there if I needed it. I realised, though, that radio shows are often more about reactive talking than proactive talking. You can have a plan about what to say, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll end up actually sticking slavishly to that script.

3. Be prepared to deviate from the script and improvise

I had no idea what kinds of issues we would be discussing beyond ‘terms of endearment’ and the recent story in Brighton, so when they played me some clips of pet names being used in professional contexts (mortgage application being turned down, dentist’s surgery, and a cold-call for double-glazing), I had to think quick about what they might want me to talk about. This wasn’t something I had anticipated, so I had to think quickly and offer some sort of ‘analysis’ of what I was hearing without getting bogged down in detail.

4. Accessibility

You’re likely going to be talking to a wide audience who are not specialised in your field, so you need to make sure that you can talk about your material/topic in an easily accessible kind of way. You don’t want to bamboozle the audience with ‘academic-ese’, and thinking carefully about your use of terminology and specialised terms means that you’re less likely to lose your listeners. One thing that might help with this is to ask the producer (who you’ll likely speak with before the show actually airs) what kind of ‘tone’ the show is going for. In my case, the aim of the Macaulay show was to have people talking about the segment later on in the pub, so factoids and unusual tidbits of information were the order of the day. If it had been a more serious discussion about gender relations, for example, I would have adopted a different kind of stance towards the discussion and covered different kinds of topics.

5. Have fun!

Radio shows are a great way to get experience of how the media works and you get a great opportunity to talk about things that interest you to a wider audience. Cracking a few jokes, having a bit of a laugh with the host and generally enjoying yourself will come across to the audience in a positive way, and that’s never a bad thing.

I have to say that it’s the first radio appearance that I’ve done that I’ve genuinely enjoyed, and I think that that’s something that comes with experience, but you can do a lot to help you settle your nerves and figure out the important things, before you even set foot in the studio. There are loads of links out there that are helpful, so I’ve added a few of them below.

The Social Linguist

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…


February is, without a doubt, my most favourite time of the year, no contest. Why? Well, it’s certainly nothing to do with the weather, nor is it because my teaching load is noticeably heavier in semester 2, nor is it because January is over and Spring is looming over the horizon. It’s because February rings the start of the Six Nations Championship and a glorious six weeks of international rugby action. Woohoo!

Although the World Cup is a wonderful spectacle and advert for the sport (England’s antics during and after the tournament a notable exception), the Six Nations distills this into an almighty battle between the Home Nations and Italy and France. No sport tournament comes close (in my mind at least) to embodying the passion, adrenaline, commitment, joy and heartbreak of the Six Nations. It is without par in the sporting world and I look forward to it every single year (well, every single year for the past six years or so).

In some respects, I’m disappointed I got into rugby so late on in my life. I was never into sports as a teenager, and during P.E. at high school, I would ask if I could go for a cross-country run instead of embarrassing myself with my two left feet and always being picked last. Rugby was (and still is) a peripheral sport in Scotland, despite the fact that it’s got a lot more going for it than football. It’s a game for all sorts of people, from small and quick to big and slow and everything in between. There’s very little animosity between club supporters, the players are respectful of the referee and his decisions (even if the decisions are wrong), and every game finishes with a handshake and a pat on the back, regardless of what happens on the pitch. In many ways, it’s a much more family friendly game than many football games, yet rugby hasn’t really capitalised on this distinction, and certainly not in Glasgow where football-related violence has always been an intrinsic part of being a fan (not for all fans of course, but for a vocal minority).

Anyway, now to head off and get ready for a day of screaming, shouting and cursing at the television. Can’t. Wait.

Oh, and here’s a wee ditty for you…

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
When the rugby is showing,
And Guinness is flowing, it’s Six Nations time!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
It’s the hap-happiest season of all.
With those try scorers running and scrums a-collapsing
You’ll roar when they score!
It’s the hap- happiest season of all.”

The Social Linguist

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