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