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Archive for March, 2012

TEDxBrum: TED goes local


Very quick update for today (come back on Tuesday if you want to read about how I got into linguistics Part II): I’m at my first ever (and Birmingham’s first ever) TED event, TEDxBrum and listening to a whole bunch of innovative talks about the city. Wonderful stuff and I’ll hopefully get time later today to do a fuller report (or update this as the day unfolds).

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Categories: Conferences, Random Tags: , ,

How I got into sociolinguistics: A story

March 20, 2012 3 comments

As I fast approach close to three years now in my post at BCU, I sometimes think back on what actually led me into academia, and in particular, how I ended up pursing my own research interests in language, urban masculinity and violence. Admittedly, my own story isn’t quite as interesting as William Labov’s might be, but I still think it’s an interesting set of coincidences and serendipity that led me to where I am now.

I really didn’t know that I would end up becoming a linguist (seriously, who does?), but thinking back to when I was a kid, I realise that I had always been interested in language. I loved word games and vocabulary puzzles and dictionaries and so on. One of my favourite books as a kid was an illustrated dictionary and I would regularly flick through it and wonder where words came from and how we ended up with the words we use. One particular incident which stuck with me was me thinking about how the same word (in this case, it was the word yes) could mean different things depending on the way it was said. So if it was said with a high rising tone, it was a question, but if it was a level tone, it was a statement. Obviously, I didn’t know at the time that what I was dealing with was intonation, but now that I do, I kind of wonder whether I was priming myself for a career in linguistics.

As I was growing up, my interest ended up moving towards literature and language wasn’t really even touched upon during primary school or secondary school. I did a bit of grammar in Latin in high school and we did some SPOCA analysis in English as well, but that was about the extent of it. So literature was really the main focus of our study, and because I enjoyed reading, I did pretty well at it, scoring the highest band possible in my Higher English in 5th year. But I didn’t really want to pursue literature as a career. Instead was focused on joining the RAF.

At the age of 14, I joined the Air Training Corps. I had always been fascinated by the military, particularly the SAS and the Royal Marines, and joining the ATC had only made that interest even more acute. When I was about 16, I decided to apply for a 6th form scholarship to support me through university, after which I would go through accelerated promotion to Flight Lieutenant in the RAF and be earning £25,000 – £30,000 at the age of 22. Add in international travel, good healthcare, varied career opportunities, personal growth and advancement, and the fact that international conflict was more or less gone from the world stage (this was pre 9/11), I thought that it was a perfect plan. Until I applied at least.

I did really well at the interview stage and the interviewing panel was impressed with my knowledge of current affairs, RAF equipment, future acquisitions (the RAF was planning on purchasing the Euro Flighter at this point), and general motivation and commitment to an officer career. But I was about to be undone by the medical… About a year or so prior to me deciding to apply to the RAF, I was diagnosed with exercise induced asthma. When I was younger, I was perennially late for everything and as a result, I had to run everywhere to make up time. One day, I had an appointment at the doctors about something and I ended up having to run down about a mile or so to the surgery. When I got in, the doctor noticed I was wheezing and asked if I had ever been checked for asthma. I hadn’t but at that time, was running for the cadets in national cross country and track events, as well as doing my own training, so I was pretty fit and thought that there was nothing wrong with me. I was instructed to do a peak flow reading for a few weeks and right enough, after exercise, my peak flow, well, it didn’t peak… In fact, after working out, my output was always lower, suggesting to the doctors that something wasn’t right. But because outside of exercise my output was always fine, they could only diagnose me with EIA. Even after nearly 15 years of EIA, I’ve never had even one episode of shortness of breath that’s not been accompanied by exercise (or exposure to cats, but that’s another story…). Not so bad you’d think, except that the RAF don’t accept people with migraines, epilepsy, and… asthma.

I remember talking about my diagnosis with another guy at the cadets who was also applying to join and he told me not to tell them I had asthma, but in the spirit of transparency and honesty, I filled out the medical form with all my medical history, including the asthma diagnosis. Alas, I was told to come back in three years time if I had no symptoms and that I could go no further with the application.

To say I was devastated would be an understatement. At the tender age of 16, it was the single biggest disappointment of my life. I thought that everything was over and that I would never be able to fulfill my dreams of being an RAF officer. My mother phoned the recruiting agency to ask them to reconsider (a bit cringeworthy now I think about it…), I got signed letters from my doctors to say that I was medically fit, but nothing worked… I had to figure something else out, and the only thing that I could think of was going to university, doing my English degree, and becoming an English teacher.

So in 2000, I applied to University of Glasgow and was accepted into their undergraduate English degree programme. As a lifelong lover of literature, what happens next surprises even me…

– The Social Linguist

It’s hard being a Scottish rugby fan…


It all started off so promisingly as well. Scotland had come off the back of a not great Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, and it was felt that the bad couldn’t get any worse. Eventually, the try drought had to stop; silly mistakes had to be cut out; a better attacking platform had to be developed. All Scottish rugby fans had been crying out for a new dawn since the inaugural Six Nations back in 2000, and hope has sprung eternal since the days of Matt Williams, Frank Hadden, and more recently Andy Robinson, that things could be turned around and we could once again become a force in world rugby.

Every year since I’ve been following the Six Nations, I’ve always gone into the tournament with fresh vigor and determination that this would be our year. This would be the time where we would blow teams away with our daring attack and phenomenal defense, carving up the pitch with devastating runs and pinpoint accuracy kicks. Alas, I’ve always been disappointed that we’ve come up so short. In. Every. Single. Tournament. Since I’ve been watching (2007), we have finished second last, with Italy the only team preventing us from the ignominy of finishing dead last.

This year, again, I had hoped it would be different. But as soon as Robinson announced the line up for the game against England, we knew we were doomed because it contained Dan Parks. Now, Dan Parks has been an admirable servant of Scotland for over a decade, and he has single-handedly saved many games for Scotland through his impeccable place kicking and touch finders, but his form of late has been dipping rather dramatically. This came to a head during the game against England when he botched a clearance kick which was charged down and led to an England try. Game over. What was even worse about this was that almost straight after the game, he retired from international rugby with immediate effect. Pretty awful news and I felt sorry for the guy who had put his body on the line for Scotland on so many occasions.

But this had the potential to herald our new dawn, with a new 10 coming in to replace Parks in the form of Greig Laidlaw (the current Edinburgh number 10), and instantly, our backline was transformed, making line breaks almost at will. But what seemed to constantly plague us were silly mistakes in the opposition 22, and against Wales, this manifest itself in two entirely avoidable yellow cards which effectively ended the contest. But we bounced back against the French and scored some well worked tries, playing probably the most attractive rugby I’ve ever seen Scotland play. Alas, we still lost, and then against Ireland, we appeared to throw away any semblance of a coherent game plan, and lost the game quite comprehensively.

So we are now zero for the last six games, and go into the last weekend of the Six Nations with our usual attempt to avoid finishing last by beating Italy. At home. Where we lost in 2008. And 2010. If we don’t beat them, we’re also ‘awarded’ both the Wooden Spoon (last place) and a tournament whitewash (no wins).  So a lot is at stake here, and I seriously wonder if Andy Robinson’s position will be at all tenable if Scotland lose. I can’t even countenance what the reaction will be in the Scottish media, since this will represent our worst run of results in about a decade.

Whatever happens though, I have to applaud the Scotland team. It can’t be easy going out on to the pitch, investing so much emotional, physical and mental effort for no reward, and then having to repeat it the next week. But I’m hopeful that today, Scotland can go out and throw down a marker that doesn’t completely devalue all the efforts they’ve made this season.

And maybe next year will be our year.

FREEDOM!!!

– The Social Linguist

Categories: Home life, Random Tags: , ,

Who changes language?


The NY Times recently published an article on language innovation by young women and how such speakers are ‘incubators of vocal trends’, and included a good amount of commentary from prominent linguistics like Penny Eckert and David Crystal on why this might be the case. The article touches on how far males and females use linguistic features such as up-talk, use of like (as in, It’s, like, hot in here), and creaky voice (also called ‘vocal fry’). There are a number of important points that come out of the article, chief of which is that it’s often males who use these particular linguistic resources more than females. The other point that the article makes is that language change is often caused by female speakers pushing the boundaries of linguistic performance and using language in new and innovative ways. This is touched on in work by Lesley and James Milroy in Belfast in the 1980s who looked at the kinds of social networks that male and female informants had. They found that females tended to have networks which were more diverse than males, and that the network links between people were usually uniplex (by contrast, some male communities had a family member who they socialised with as well as worked with; this is known as a multiplex link). Because of these kinds of diverse networks, it meant that women were more exposed to a larger range of speakers from different speech communities, resulting in linguistic behaviour which wasn’t enforced by local norms (unlike those speakers who were in dense and multiplex networks). Thus, women would be more likely to bring in new forms of linguistic behaviour and disseminate them through their community.

All well and good, but then I remembered that I had read something else which offered a completely different way to look at this which draws more on biology and genetics than it does on linguistic methodology.

At the University of Cambridge, Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew are currently investigating how they can trace language change to geographical diffusion of communities through analysing the DNA profile of various speakers. Ultimately, their argument is that language change is driven by males since it was males who typically invaded, settled and married into the indigenous population, bringing with them not only their own language, but also their own DNA (which is then passed onto their children). By mapping out the spread of new DNA, they can tell to what extent the new ‘invader’ DNA is present versus the older ‘settler’ DN, as is stated in the abstract for the paper ‘By contrast, the female lineages, as indicated by mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) types, do not reflect the survivor language but represent more ancient settlement’.

I suppose that one way to square this circle is that Forster and Renfrew’s research examines the historical divergences of languages, processes which, for all intents and purposes, have now ceased. New processes of language change, on the other hand, are predicated around using language for particular interactional goals and for particular stylistic purposes, and women are at the forefront of doing so (mainly because women are judged and evaluated more by things like how they sound and how they look, so more attention is paid to these issues).

– The Social Linguist

Proud to have a Scottish accent!


A few days ago, I was flicking through the search terms that people use to visit the blog, and I was quite surprised to see that someone had clicked on it through looking for ‘scotland more proud of accent psychology’. It was surprising because I hadn’t actually ever written about this (or if I had, it was only tangentially), but something in the blog must have flagged it up on Google as having something to do with the search terms. It was also surprising because in Week 4, we did our first undergraduate reading group and the article we talked about was Nickolas Coupland and Hywel Bishop’s ‘Ideologized Values for British Accents’ (Journal of Sociolinguistics, 2007, which, rather weirdly, doesn’t come up on Google Scholar…).

Anyway, Coupland and Bishop’s article is based on data collected as part of the BBC Voices project, which was a major study into language variation in the UK, primarily lexical variation. As part of the study, people were asked what they thought about different varieties of English (labels only, not sound clips), and the respondents had to rate 34 varieties of English (from both the UK and further afield) according to social attractiveness (friendliness, trustworthiness etc) and social prestige (intelligence, employability etc).

Some of the results are entirely expected. For example, Birmingham English was rated last in both axes, RP was rated positively on social prestige but not on social attractiveness, and urban varieties were generally more negatively evaluated than rural varieties. But since the study collected data on where the respondent was from, Coupland and Bishop were able to see how this affected the kinds of ratings that were given to the various varieties. They divided the respondents into six main groups (Wales, Scotland, Norther Ireland, North of England/Midlands, South-East of England and South-West of England), and what was really surprising was that Scottish respondents were more positive about their own accent than other respondents. As Coupland and Bishop (2007: 81) say, ‘for two of the accents from Scotland (Scottish English and Edinburgh English), Scottish respondents provide more positive prestige judgements than respondents from all the other regions. With respect to the Glasgow accent, Scottish informants are again most positive’. Weirdly, though, for some accents, the in-group respondents didn’t rate their own variety the highest, so for the Belfast accent, for example, ‘it is the Scottish respondents who orientated most positively towards the Belfast accent’.

So, being Scottish means that you’re more likely to rate other Celtic varieties highly on prestige, but if you’re from Wales or Northern Ireland, it’s more likely to be the case that ‘accents labelled as generic national varieties [will be] seen as significantly more prestigious’ (Coupland and Bishop 2007: 81). Coupland and Bishop then go on to discuss social attractiveness and the picture gets a bit more complicated.

Scottish respondents were more likely to show in-group loyalty towards their own varieties than all the other groups considered in the study, and they rated Scottish English varieties more highly on the social attractiveness scale than they did for other varieties (this ties in quite nicely with Karen Torrance’s M.Phil dissertation on language attitudes in Glasgow). Welsh respondents were positive in their evaluations of Welsh English, but respondents from Cardiff didn’t rate Cardiff English very highly, nor did respondents from Belfast rate Belfast English very highly.

Why might this be the case? Well, Coupland and Bishop explain the results through reference to a form of Celtic in-group loyalty. Since the Welsh, Irish and Scottish are all Celtic in background, this is assumed to be a sort of link that ties these three nations together. But that doesn’t explain why Scottish speakers are more likely to rate Belfast English more highly than people from Belfast would. It might be that attitudes towards ‘generic national varieties’ are more negative in Scotland than elsewhere, or maybe Scottish speakers are just more tolerant of non-standard varieties.

Whatever the reason might be, one thing is clear: if you want your accent to be rated positively by more people, just move to Scotland (but only if you’re Welsh or Irish).

– The Social Linguist

Eek! My first long research talk…


Yesterday, I did my first talk about the role of social media in sociolinguistics reporting, and I’m pleased to report that it went quite well (thankfully). The presentation was to the post-graduate linguistics research group at University of Birmingham (they have a regular e-mail and web-group brilliantly named ‘PG Tips’).

I have to admit that I was more than a little bit nervous about doing this talk. Before yesterday, the biggest (research) talk I had done was probably the Sociolinguistics Symposium talk a few years ago in Amsterdam, which was only about 20 minutes or so (as are more conference papers). Yesterday’s talk, though, was about 50 minutes and it felt like quite a step up (ok, I did a 45 minute talk at work when I first arrived, but that doesn’t count. It was at work!).

Because the material I was talking about yesterday was relatively new (as in, I hadn’t presented on it properly before), I had to write out what I wanted to say (you cover a lot of material in 50 minutes and unless you have the memory of an elephant, you need crib notes). Unfortunately, one of the hardest things about doing a talk is figuring out how many typed words = time. In the comfort of your own flat, reading aloud doesn’t give you much of an idea of how the real thing will go (although it’s a good approximation), and when you get to presentation itself, you usually find that you don’t stick as slavishly to the script as you perhaps should do. There will be wee things that you want to add, new ways of moving from section to section, and so on and so on. So when I did my run through on Friday afternoon, I was bang on about 45 minutes, so that left about 10 minutes for questions. When I did the presentation itself, though, I ended up having to cut out about five minutes of material so I could finish on time and still do questions. Thankfully, I hit a good point in my talk where I was able to segue from one section to my conclusion, and if I had an hour, I would’ve been able to cover everything (we started a bit late, hence the shortness of time). Not to worry, it didn’t impact on the message I wanted to get across anyway, so it was all good.

Despite the nervousness though, I really enjoyed giving the talk, and it’s always good meeting new people and hearing about what they’re working on. They have a really strong postgraduate cohort at Birmingham Uni and having a strong cohort is something that makes doing a PhD all the more easier. Knowing that there are people there who are going through the different stages of a PhD means that there’s always someone who knows what it’s like to be going through what you’re going through, so help and advice is usually relatively easy to come by.

And now I’ve only got two weeks to get ready for my next research group talk! These things are like buses… None at all for ages and then two come along at once!

The Social Linguist